Pressure ratchets up on major Russian NGO

Lev Ponomarev, a 71-year-old human rights activist, is going through a
hard time — the work of the Movement For Human Rights, which he founded
in 1997, has been paralyzed after he and his staff were battered and
kicked out of their office in central Moscow by a special task police
unit on the night of June 21-22.

On June 26, the Justice Ministry suspended operations of another
NGO, an independent election watchdog Golos, for six months. Golos was
the first NGO to have refused to acknowledge itself as “a foreign
agent,” a synonym for “a spy” in Russian, and it was fined 400,000
rubles ($12,200) in April.

Russia busts Golos as ‘foreign agent’ NGO

Related: Russia busts Golos as ‘foreign agent’ NGO

Late last year, Russian parliament resolved that an NGO funded from
abroad and engaged in politics should have “foreign agent” added to its
name, exposing the NGO to unscheduled audits and likely resulting in a
fall in private donations; potential benefactors may feel wary about
sponsoring an NGO that is implicitly referred to as a spy.

Ponomarev has been struggling to challenge intensified inspections of
his organization by prosecutors, who claim that, under a law effective
as of January 1, 2013, the Movement For Human Rights is to be labeled “a
foreign agent.”

On Friday, June 28, when the Justice Ministry reported placing the
first NGO on the list of foreign agents, Ponomarev walked out of a
hearing in a Moscow district court, accusing the judge of being biased
in favor of prosecutors.

In late March, prosecutors had demanded the
organization’s paperwork, which Ponomarev had submitted in early March.
During the court hearing, the prosecutors failed to give substantial
grounds for requesting the same documents twice during the same month,
and the judge adjourned the hearing until July 31.

The Movement For Human Rights defends businesspeople facing trumped-up
charges, assists former convicts with finding placement after they are
released from prison, and helps ordinary people resolve their disputes
with employers, utility companies, etc.

Ponomarev is currently awaiting the results of a probe that the
Interior Ministry launched into the forced eviction of his organization.

Will NGOs and Kremlin find a compromise amid inspections?

Will NGOs and Kremlin find a compromise amid inspections?

In the middle of the day on Friday, June 21, the head of the Moscow
Department of Land, Alexander Rudnev, came to the office of the Movement
For Human Rights — together with police, security officers and private
security guards — to demand that Ponomarev and his staff immediately
leave the office they had been renting from the Moscow government since

The human rights activists refused to do so: According to Russian law, a
leaseholder can be displaced only on a court warrant. In their case, no
pertinent court hearing ever took place at all.

As of June 21,
Ponomarev’s organization was in the middle of a lease extension
procedure. On February 15, the Moscow Property Department notified
Ponomarev that it no longer wanted to rent out the office to his

On February 27, however, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said
at a meeting with Moscow commissioner for human rights, Alexander
Muzykantsky, that the decision would be revoked. Ponomarev has paid the
rent for up to Aug. 1.

On June 22, twelve hours after the law-enforcers showed up at the
office of the Movement For Human Rights and told the activists that they
“can only exit the building, not enter it anymore,” Ponomarev and his
staff were kicked out of the building by a special task police unit
known as OMON.

Two persons not in uniform, who introduced themselves as simply Verigin
and Gordeyev, were in charge of the eviction operation. Bloggers later
identified one of these men as Gen. Alexander Birin, head of the Moscow
Security Service’s Anti-Corruption Department.

NGO law

“The OMON grabbed me, knocked me down and pulled me to the exit, as the
two unidentified men in charge kicked me on my head and kidneys,”
Ponomarev told the Presidential Council on Human Rights, which convened
for an extraordinary meeting on June 26.

Apart from Ponomarev, the council’s head, Mikhail Fedotov, invited the
other sides of the conflict — namely the Moscow mayor, the head of his
administration’s property department, the chief of Moscow police and the
prosecutor of Moscow.

“Many questions could have been cleared up by representatives of the
Mayor’s Office, but they must have found it unnecessary to attend this
meeting,” Fedotov said.

The meeting was attended by Vladimir Lukin and Alexander Muzykantsky —
human rights commissioners for Russia and for Moscow, respectively. They
had arrived at the office of the Movement For Human Rights on the
evening of June 21, but they were denied entrance to the building by

This breached Russian law, which grants human rights
commissioners unrestricted access to places where a violation of human
rights has been reported.

“I stood near OMON, who wouldn’t let me in,” Lukin said. “Those who
called themselves lessors didn’t show their IDs, ownership documents or a
court warrant when I asked if they had any of those.


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Evicted human rights veteran Ponomaryov ready to accept assistance from tycoon Prokhorov

They just replied:
‘What court are you talking about? We can get it all done quick now
without any papers.’ Apparently, they were waiting for Mr. Muzykantsky
and me to leave. As soon as we did, the storm of the office began.”

At 2:30 a.m., the human rights activists were thrown out of their
office. Ponomarev suffered multiple contusions, and one of his staff
members had one of his radial bones fractured.

At the council meeting, the head of the Interior Ministry’s Department
for Public Order, Lt. Gen. Yury Demidov, said a probe was launched into
the incident and “no violations of law were found during preliminary

Mayor Sobyanin, who is standing for election on Sept. 8, has made no
statements regarding this situation so far. The Movement For Human
Rights is looking for a new office in Moscow.

Billionaire Mikhail
Prokhorov said on June 22 that he will pay the rent for the organization
for 12 months.

Prokhorov himself had announced his mayoral ambitions, but his chances
to challenge Sobyanin were compromised when Sobyanin called an early
election on June 4.

Under a new law that came into effect on May 7, a
person who — like Prokhorov — has assets abroad, cannot run for an
elected office.

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