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10.11.2009 | Megan K. Stack

Two Russian human rights groups see political motive in eviction effort

   

Two of Russia’s most prominent human rights organizations say their work has been thrown into jeopardy by municipal efforts to evict them from their offices.
For Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group say they will fight to remain in their respective downtown offices. Both groups have occupied the same spaces for more than a decade at cut-rate rents brokered in a burst of liberalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The threat of eviction looms at a time when a dwindling community of human rights workers, locked in perpetual battle over grievances over issues such as state violence in the restive Caucasus region to dismal conditions in Russian prisons, say they face increasing pressure and harassment.
Russian human rights activists have increasingly become the target of violence and threats. Natalia Estemirova, a dogged investigator and critic of abuse against civilians in Chechnya , was shot dead in July.
In January, For Human Rights head Lev Ponomaryov was badly beaten as he arrived home from work. He believes both the assault and the eviction are attempts to harass him into silence.
"Under [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, the state’s repressive machine has become increasingly powerful, and I don’t think anybody is going to stop this machine," he said Monday. "In public, the president says he wants to stop the machine, but so far we haven’t seen any concrete actions on his part."
The Moscow Helsinki Group is Russia’s oldest human rights organization, tracing its roots back to the 1970s, when activists were arrested by Soviet authorities and hounded from the country.
The group was informed in writing of its impending eviction in the spring, but opted to stay put and fight against the order.
"Nobody has come officially to our office. Nobody has notified us in person," said Anastasia Aseyeva, administrative director of the Moscow Helsinki Group. "We have repeatedly asked them why this is happening, and never get an answer."
A spokeswoman for Moscow’s government property department said that the building where Moscow Helsinki Group has its offices was being renovated. The human rights organization countered that the building’s other tenants were not being asked to leave.
For Human Rights, meanwhile, was "careless" and had broken the rules of the apartment house, city spokeswoman Natalia Bykova said.
"Since they revealed themselves as careless tenants, and given the fact that the other residents are categorically against this organization being there, they will be evicted and we’re not going to offer them other space options," Bykova said.
Downtown Moscow has some of the world’s most expensive real estate, and battles over property -- often marked by corruption and pressure -- are a regular feature of urban life.
Early this year, Russian lawmakers closed a long-standing provision that allowed nonprofit organizations to rent offices at a lower, protected cost rather than having to compete with Moscow’s high-rolling corporations.
The protection for non-governmental organizations was restored over the summer, bringing human rights groups a measure of relief. But the drive to evict the two human rights groups has continued nonetheless.
"If it were just my organization, then maybe I could believe there’s some commercial intrigue behind it," Ponomaryov said. "But there are two of us in the same boat. It’s definitely politically motivated."

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