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Seizure of the Office of the Movement For Human Rights

27 June 2013 

Source: (info)
The central concerns surrounding the current pressure on human rights activists - the notorious law on "foreign agents," the prosecutors’ inspections and prosecutions of civic activists - in recent days have been pushed to one side by the news of the controversial eviction of the Movement For Human Rights from their office.

For Human Rights has itself described the eviction as a "seizure by raiders" and a "storming" of the building. The operation to evict the activists began on the afternoon of Friday, June 21, and culminated at 2:30 on Saturday morning. As the executive director of For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, said, a spokesman for the Moscow government property department announced the lease had been terminated, which was a surprise for the human rights defenders. Ponomarev says they had received no notices that the lease had been terminated or, in particular, that the eviction should take place at a specific time. Moreover, according to Ponomarev,the rent for the office had been paid until the end of July 2013.

Ponomarev The leader of the Movement For Human Rights especially noted the rough treatment given to him and his staff by the police and the private security officers. In an interview with Radio Liberty, published on the day the Movement’s office was seized, the human rights defender said he had been beaten in the kidneys, the chest and the head. "They dragged me along the ground like a sack of flour ... kicking me," Ponomarev said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio station two days later. The locks on the door of the office were changed. Ponomarev appealed to Mayor Sobyanin to allow him t remove documentation and office equipment from the office. The city’s department of property gave the activists three days to remove their belongings. In answer to a question asked by Moskovsky komsomolets ​​why the human rights defenders had not left the premises when the conflict began to hot up, but on the contrary had barricaded themselves inside, Ponomarev said, "There was no court ruling! And can court bailiffs have the right to evict anyone on the basis of a court decision."

Lukin Federal Human Rights Ombudsman Lukin arrived on the scene during the night, but police officers headed by a police lieutenant did not let him in. Lukin had to talk to those inside the building through a window. He described the incident as a gross violation of the federal law on the Human Rights Ombudsman. "Why was it necessary and possible to use the police, riot police and so on, clear elements of violence ... when this problem could have been easily resolved in a completely different way? " Lukin said in an interview with journalists from NTV. Subsequently, the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Aleksandr Gorovoi, officially apologized to the Ombudsman for the fact that police had refused him admission to the office occupied by the human rights defenders. Lukin accepted the apology, but complained that the police apparently had not been aware of the existence of the position of Federal Human Rights Ombudsman.

Muzykantsky Moscow Human Rights Ombudsman Muzykantsky arrived at the scene before Lukin and entered the building. However, he had not been able to resolve the situation. Muzykantsky was among those who discussed the situation with Lukin through the window, and then left the office on Kislovsky Pereulok before the police began to use force.

Mitrokhin The leader of the Yabloko party and candidate for mayor of Moscow Sergei Mitrokhin was among those who came to the office of the Movement For Human Rights, and was there during the storming of the office. Mitrokhin describes the events in the most brutally direct and dramatic phrases: "Before my eyes the FSB officers who were in charge of the operation also beat people. A huge two-metre high giant of a riot officer threw me down the stairs," according to Mitrokhin’s statement published by Mitrokhin also complained that during the events they took away his iPad with which he had been trying to take pictures of those who were in charge of the seizure of the offices.

Police The Ministry of the Interior to immediately disassociated itself from the forcible action: the riot police were only ensuring public order and safety. The actual perpetrators were said to be private security staff. Just a couple of days later the police announced the results of an internal investigation: the police had not committed any violations, except for the episode when they had denied entry to the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman. According to the head of the public order division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, Yury Demidov, his agency received 19 complaints about the events and is looking into them.

Moscow city property department On their website, the city of Moscow property department published a terse press release, in which the events of June 21-22 were described as "measures to release city of Moscow property from an illegal tenant." In an interview with RBC Daily, acting deputy head of the department, Ekaterina Solovieva, pointed out that the lease had expired in February, and that her agency had warned the Movement For Human Rights of an impending eviction.

Private security company The private security company involved is called "Special Group", and its staff do not say much. As Novaya gazeta journalists said, when asked a question by phone, Special Group staff immediately hung up. The aforementioned Yury Demidov, speaking at the Presidential Council on Human Rights, said that no complaints against the private security company had yet been received.

Prosecution First deputy prosecutor of Moscow, Aleksandr Kozlov said that his department will conduct an investigation into the actions of all parties to the conflict: the City Hall officials, police and human rights defenders. At the time that force was used, no prosecutors were present on the spot.

Prokhorov Shortly after the described events took place, billionaire businessman and leader of Civic Platform, Mikhail Prokhorov, said that "whatever the legal side of the case," as a person he could only feel indignation about the expulsion of human rights defenders from the office on Kislovsky pereulok. Prokhorov offered to pay the annual rent for the Movement For Human Rights’ office. "Lev Ponomarev I know personally and I sincerely appreciate the work he does," said the businessman. Ponomarev said he would accept the assistance.

Media The scandal drew the attention of the journalistic community: all the news columns under the topic of "human rights" carried news of the events surrounding the human rights defenders’ office. NTV correspondents were in the thick of things: they accompanied the officials at the scene (something which has become a tradition). Subsequently, NTV said the human rights defenders attacked journalists and confiscated their camera. The police has already reported that the camera had been found and would be returned as soon as it had been checked (and Mitrokhin’s iPad would also be returned to its owner). NTV's website was full of materials with a clearly negative evaluation of the actions of the human rights defenders. In general, an overview of media, including online publications, shows that media coverage of the conflict was well balanced and competent.

Colleagues Amnesty International distributed a statement about the incident widely, calling it "another blow to NGOs." Amnesty International also drew attention to a similar situation with the Voronezh House of Human Rights. The Moscow Helsinki Group allowed some of the staff from For Human Rights (those working for the Foundation to Protect Prisoners’ Rights) to work from their office.

Lev Ponomarev let it be known that the struggle for the abandoned office was not in his view the number one task. For the organization what was more important was to continue their work.

Property disputes in themselves are not new, but the eviction of a tenant using brute force, at the same time inflicting bodily injuries and ignoring the lawful demands of the Ombudsman, is a landmark event. There is not a single piece of paper, not a single procedural formality, to indicate that the action against Ponomarev and his colleagues is directly related to the current prosecutors’ inspections of NGOs, and the prosecution of NGOs who failing to register as "foreign agents." You can assess the incident as a conflict over property that went beyond common sense. But for NGOs themselves, who are expecting the next move in the current series of events, these actions by officials form a distinct model based on a negative attitude and on arbitrary actions by government. Today, every person with a truncheon knows this – not only the police commander, but even a simple staff member from a private security firm.