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25.07.2009

Memorial: On the persecution of human rights organizations in Kazan

   

In Kazan on 20 July 2009 law enforcement agencies paralyzed the activities of two well-known civic organizations – the interregional human rights organization AGORA and the Kazan Human Rights Centre. All bookkeeping documentation was removed on the pretext that they were looking for tax and other financial infringements.

After the first interrogation on 22 July, it became clear that the tax quibbles were no more than a pretext. The chief and, essentially, only interest shown by the investigators was not in whether money had been spent correctly, but in the sources of financing of the organizations. This continues a trend which has not just recently emerged. The notion which became lodged in the minds of Soviet leaders that receiving money from abroad is not far off State treason has outlived the Soviet Union. We are seeing ever more often how high-ranking officials and State-owned media try to present human rights activists receiving support from foreign foundations as if not a “fifth column”, then as “hirelings of the West”.

This is undoubtedly in the majority of cases not a genuine misapprehension, but an old propagandist technique allowing them to avoid discussion specific facts and issues with the help of an accusatory formula: “he who pays calls the tune”. Constant repetition of a tacky view about money and music has not so far solved a single public problem, but the very phrase quite frequently creates an impression upon those who have no idea about the work of civic organizations. Many people have no idea that it is not foundations (foreign or Russian) which hire civic activists for some purpose, but on the contrary civic organizations which seek and choose sponsors for their own projects.

Human rights organizations cannot depend on their sponsors - that would be fatal. They cannot depend on State funding since the main violator of citizens’ rights is always and everywhere the State. In the entire world human rights organizations rely on non-state funding, this being one of the sources of their independence.

Unfortunately in Russia it is almost exclusively foreign charities which form the source of support for human rights, as well as for many other independent civic organizations. This does not reflect the preference of the civic organizations themselves, but due to the situation in the country. it would be marvellous to receive support from Russian sponsors, but in today’s Russia virtually no serious businesspeople will risk helping human rights organizations without the approval of those in power.

Up till recently there was no question even of the authorities approving of human rights activities. At present there would seem to have been some changes – President Medvedev has publicly uttered words about the importance and need for the work of human rights defenders, although this work causes difficulties for the authorities.

It would seem, however, that Russian officials do not believe in the President’s sincerity. It would seem that they think that his words are mere ritual phrases for western partners. This at any rate is the impression gained by the events in Kazan.

We on our part are convinced that the true interests of the country are represented not by quasi-patriots, fighting with “foreign influence”, but human rights defenders who help citizens protect their rights against the arbitrary rule of the country’s officials. This is what the interregional human rights organization AGORA and the Kazan Human Rights Centre do highly successfully.

We are outraged by the removal of documents from Kazan human rights organizations and demand their immediate return. We express solidarity with our colleagues and hope that in the very near future they can return to systematic work.

24 July 2009

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