Court rules in favor of St. Petersburg’s Memorial group after December 4th raid

ingressimage_180px-Lenin_in_front_of_Finland_Station.jpg Photo: wikimedia commons

The decision came as a pleasant surprise to human rights advocates in Russia during an era of seemingly unmitigated persecution of civil society organizations in the country every since the State Duma passed stiff new revisions to its laws on NGOs operating in Russia in April 2006, which has led to their near extinction.

On December 4th, according to members of Memorial who spoke with Bellona Web during and after the raid, a group of armed and masked men claiming to have been sent by the local Prosecutor’s office raided the local headquarters of the Memorial human rights group, confiscating eleven hard drives from the group’s computers. The investigators also seized all the organization’s research and archive materials collated over the past 20 years.

Verdict greeted with relief

Arseny Roginsky, chairman of the board of the Moscow-based international organization Memorial, said the verdict marked a rare case of an independent and fair trial in Russia.

“I find it encouraging that the judge gave an unbiased verdict that was clearly against the interests of our powerful opponents who represent the law enforcement agencies,” Roginsky told the St. Petersburg Times.

“Instead of protecting and placating the investigators — which is what, regrettably, most Russian judges would have done, as can be seen in similar trials — the court came out with a fair verdict.”

The investigators denounced the verdict and said they would appeal the ruling at the St. Petersburg City Court, the paper reported.

The court ruled that all the documents and hard drives taken by the investigators during the search must be returned to Memorial, but the human rights activists will have to wait until the end of the legal proceedings, when a ruling is given on the appeal, said the paper.

Office search a melee
Several masked men armed with sticks stormed into Memorial’s office at around noon on the day in question, and began searching the premises. According to interviews with Memorial Staff by Bellona Web, four Memorial employees were working in the organisation’s office on Ulitsa Rubinsteina, in St. Petersburg’s Central District, when the raid began.

They were forbidden to use mobile phones and forced to remain seated, while the visitors who had shown up for the day’s appointments were ordered bluntly to leave the premises. The entrance door was then shut, and any access inside was denied to both Memorial’s co-founder Tatiana Kosinova and a detachment of police officers that had been called in during the commotion.

According to Kosinova, at some point her colleagues managed to open the office’s backdoor and she and a television crew tried to gain access, but the masked intruders blocked their attempt.

Irina Flige, head of the organization’s historical branch said the investigators’ protests were both predictable and pointless.

“The investigators claimed they never heard our lawyer ringing the doorbell and banging on the door,” she told the St. Petersburg Times. “But a video recording ­ which, remarkably enough, they themselves submitted and screened at the court ­ proved that the sounds were perfectly audible.”

Two vehicles – a police van and a car marked with a Russian Federation flag and prosecutorial insignia – remained  parked in front of the Memorial and the search continued until 5:45 pm, witnesses told Bellona Web.

Some time after the raid started, Memorial employees were shown the search warrant, which turned out to have been signed by Senior Investigator Mikhail Kalganov with the Investigative Department for St. Petersburg’s Central District, a jurisdiction within the Investigative Directorate operating under the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation.

Special Investigtor Kalganov was also the investigator on the case against Maksim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian opposition party Yabloko. Reznik had been accused of assaulting police officers – something that Yabloko members and other political activists call a politically motivated provocation and a fabricated charge – while Kalganov was instrumental in ensuring that an arraignment hearing would end in a ruling to remand Reznik into custody pending trial. Prominent members of the St. Petersburg community demanded Reznik’s release, but prosecution eventually failed to meet the burden of proof, and the charges against Reznik did not stick.

Political reasons behind the search
Kalganov warrant for Memorial specified that the search was to be conducted in connection to investigating a criminal case initiated against a local publication called Novy Peterburg, Memorial members told Bellona Web.

According to the Investigative Committee of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office, the search was part of an investigation into a criminal case involving the publication of “Here Comes the Real Candidate,” an article by Konstantin Chernyayev printed in the Novy Peterburg newspaper in June 2007.

The prosecutors allege that the article incited social and ethnic hatred.

Prosecutors brought the case against the paper on September 9th 2008, citing violations of the Russian Criminal Code where it treats offences deemed as “inciting national, racial, or religious hostilities.” Another criminal case had earlier been initiated against Novy Peterburg’s editor-in-chief Nikolai Andrushchenko. The paper’s publication is currently on hold.

Human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, formerly of Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices who represents Memorial, said Memorial is planning to sue Anvar Azimov, Russia’s representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who, speaking at a session on January 18th, claimed the Russian authorities had sufficient reason to believe that Memorial was linked to the funding of extremist materials that were published in the Novy Peterburg newspaper.

Pavlov told the St. Petersburg Times that, “The very idea of a possible connection between Memorial, an internationally known human rights group, and extremists of any kind, is false; worse, when voiced publicly, it becomes a clear case of libel and an intentional attempt to discredit.”

He added that, “The search, and the rough, arbitrary manner in which it was carried out, created suitable grounds for such base speculations and insinuations.”

According to the paper, Kalganov explained to the court during the hearings on Friday that he had reason to suspect that the editors of Novy Peterburg might have used Memorial’s office to hide sensitive documents related to the case, the paper reported.

Memorial’s staff argued that the evidence collected during the surveillance operation cited by Kalganov had either been concocted with an eye to intimidating the organization, or was unreliable.

Charles Digges