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“The Summit’s echo: has the liquidation of human rights organizations in Russia begun?” [Attack on the “International Protection Centre”]

Prominent human rights activists in Moscow fear that the tax demands made on the "International Protection Centre" are a sign of a new offensive by the authorities on NGOs now that the G8 Summit is over

On 1 August 2006 human rights activists held a joint press conference in Moscow under the title: “The Summit’s echo: has the liquidation of human rights organizations begun?” [Attack on the “International Protection Centre”]  Those taking part included: Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Lev Ponomaryov, Executive Director of the Civic Movement “For Human Rights”; Karinna Akopovna Moskalenko, Director of the «International Protection Centre”;; Sergei Kovalyov, Chair of “Memorial”, Svetlana Gannushkina from the Civic Assistance Committee as well as many others.

The immediate reason for the press conference was the fact that the “International Protection Centre” which is run by Karinna Moskalenko, former lawyer to Mikhail Khodorkovsky,  has been presented with a bill from the Tax Inspectorate of 5 million roubles. The amount was arrived at by interpreting means received through grants over a period of three years as the organization’s “profits”.  Human rights activists believe that this is a new formula for liquidating human rights organizations seen as being too independent.

The authorities have in this way placed the very existence of the “International Protection Centre”, virtually the only organization providing free legal aid to citizens of the Russian Federation wishing to lodge claims with the European Court of Human Rights or other international legal institutions, in jeopardy.

The press conference was attended by around 20 heads of human rights organizations. They expressed their support for the Centre, stressing that the organization was not involved in any commercial activities making the tax demands farcical.  They also stated that overall since the G8 Summit there has been a move backwards even from the previous level of democracy.

Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, believes that the Russian authorities are first and foremost put out by the very existence of the Centre which helps Russian citizens go over the head of the Russian justice system (having got nowhere within the latter) and apply to the European Court of Human Rights.  This is particularly irritating to the authorities, showing that “the justice system doesn’t work, that the court is neither lawful, nor independent. … Russian citizens are inundating the Strasbourg Court with their claims precisely because even the simplest case is often impossible to get resolved within Russia. One needs to turn to the international justice system. This is shameful.”

The leaders of other human rights organizations fully endorsed Ludmilla Alexeeva’s words. Svetlana Gannushkina, for example, from the Civic Assistance Committee, spoke of the pressure often brought to bear on people who approach the European Court of Human Rights.

The organizations also stressed that the use of tax checks to stifle NGOs had become standard practice.  It had been clear from the outset, they stated in their press announcement, that such a lengthy check on a non-profit making organization which received no money from the state and existed on foreign grants, and which regularly reported to its donors on expenditure, was no chance matter. They suggest that the authorities waited until the G8 Summit was over in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about NGOs and civic society.

Many of those who spoke at the press conference pointed out the actions of the tax authorities with relation to the “International Protection Centre” were the first consequences of the latest rules on the functioning of NGOs.  They believed that many state bodies were already acting in the spirit of the new law even though it was still not entirely clear how the law would be applied.

Chair of the Committee “For civil rights” Andrei Babushkin noted that the new legislative initiatives would affect not only those involved in the struggle for human rights, but Russian citizens in general. “”The regime’s ideal would be to have 140 million hooks to string 140 million people to. At any moment they can pull on any of the strings and tell this or that person: “You are an offender, you’re going to prison, to court, or anywhere else”. We can all see it. Chekhov said that if there’s a rifle on the wall, it must shoot. The laws which have been passed by the State Duma over the last five years have all been like rifles hanging from the wall. We don’t know where, when and what they will shoot at. We understand that a huge number of laws are directed against any of us – against human rights activists, against journalists, businesspeople, politicians, against anyone they like in this country”.

A very serious collision is clear. If Russia remains a member of the Council of Europe and in so doing retains its commitments on implementing the rulings of the European Court, then in the very near future the question may arise what the Russian authorities should do in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Very many believe that the pressure on the “International Protection Centre” is directly connected with the fact that Karinna Moskalenko (who while not formally the head of the Centre, is its public face) is representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The International Commission of Jurists has issued a statement to the effect that since Ms Moskalenko began defending Khodorkovsky, she has been the target of a whole barrage of criticism from the Russian authorities.

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