Southern Urals human rights group offices searched without warrant – officials remain mum

Publish date: November 23, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – A prominent Russian human rights organization in the Southern Urals has yet to receive any official explanation for what is being called an unsanctioned search of its offices in early November in an event its director said was a reprisal a for a suit it helped file against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Plant of Hopes organization in Ozersk – the closed nuclear city that hosts the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine – was searched in early November, according to its director Nadezhda Kutepova, after the organisation assisted in filing a suit in the Human Rights Court on behalf of ‘’in utero liquidators” – pregnant women who were sent to liquid of the 1957 Kyshtym disaster at the Mayak plant, which was outdone only by Chernobyl in 1986. The children of these mothers and the mothers themselves were profoundly affected by the radiation to which they were exposed during the clean up.  

Planet of Hopes has also aided in a suit filed to lift the restricted and secret status Ozersk in order that the crisis situation of nuclear contamination there can be more transparently investigated. Kutepova has called the tossing of her organisation’s office by authorities an act of pressure.

Planet of Hopes has operated in Ozersk for more than 10 years and is engaged in protecting the rights of the local community, whose health has been severely impacted by the work of the Mayak plant – which bears the distinction of being the most radioactively contaminated location in Russia.

On November 7th, the organisation’s offices were visited by a rag-tag group of law enforcement officials – one of which turned out to be a traffic police officer. The officials attempted to confiscate Planet of Hopes’ computers over what they said were the organisation’s significant tax arrears. They did not produce a warrant for the search.

“ I evaluate these actions as an attempt to throw a wrench into the works and to personally annoy me,” said Kutepova in an interview with Bellona Web. “We pay all our taxes without fail.”

The chief of the local tax police’s inspection department, to whom Planet of Hopes appealed, confirmed that the organisation had no tax arrears.

In recent years, Kutepova has experienced inordinate surveillance by authorities. In January, when a new door was installed on her apartment, a police official entered her home and refused to leave for a half an hour, despite the fact that she explained to him that she was on maternity leave and that he should go to the Planet of Hopes office with any questions he had about the work of the organisation. Then, Kutepova found out about a visit by the Federal Security Service (FSB) – the KGB’s successor – to her child’s nursery school. In April, officials tried to detain Kutepova in the hospital after the birth of her child for reasons that remain unexplained: despite the fact that her doctor was planning on discharging her the following day, the management ordered her to stay in the hospital five more days. Out of fear for her life and the heath of her baby, Kutepova immediately left the hospital.

Kutepova asserts that the authorities activities against her are predicated on her involvement with the “in-utero liquidators” cause, and with a former prisoner – identified only as K by Planet of Hopes and court records – regarding permission to enter Ozersk’s closed territory.

Over the last year alone, Planet of Hopes has prepared and sent to the European Court of Human Rights some 30 complaints against Russian bureaucrats of varying levels.

“Twenty-three thousand victims of radiation accidents live in the Chelyabinsk Region (where Ozersk is located), but local courts deal with them worse than they deal with any other group,” said Kutepova.

The worst of the accidents occurred in 1957 at Mayak when a container of radioactive waste exploded and released some 20 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The Regions of Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk and Tyumen, with a combined population of 217,000 living in 217 cities and towns, were the beneficiaries of the brunt of the contamination.   

Defending ‘in-utero liquidators’
Beginning in 2006, a number of court cases where initiated in the Chelyabinsk Region concerning “in-utero liquidators,” in defence of the rights of mothers and their children, who, while pregnant were sent to clean up the fallout of the 1957 disaster at Mayak. This group is still not receiving any compensation or benefits from the government, and the government denies that any pregnant women were involved in the clean up effort. According to calculations by human rights groups, some 2000 pregnant women did, in fact, take part in the effort.  

District and Regional courts in Chelyabinsk have refused to recognise the rights of these “in-utero liquidators” to compensation. In 2008, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that this was a human rights violation, but left the issue unsolved by not including this group in the official list of recognised victims of the Mayak disaster.

In June, Planet of Hopes together with the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) prepared and registered a preliminary complaint on behalf of six petitioners in the European Court of Human Rights, and their final complaint will be filed in December.

Minatom’s closed ‘reservations’

The European Court of Human Rights this year received for review a complaint from former convict K. The complaint concerns the decision of the city to not allow city citizens who have been convicted of a crime and served their time to return home. In the reasoning submitted in court by the Russian government side, the topography of the locality and the work regime of nuclear installations in the closed administrative territory of Ozersk is protected by government secrecy, and, therefore, entering the city requires security clearance.   

According to Kutepova, there are no secrets within Ozersk to be discerned by simple passers-by. The conditions of secrecy and the special status of Russia’s secret police in closed cities are employed for the suppression of the development of civil society. Russia still has 42 closed cities with a total combined population of 2 million. These cities are primarily host cities to Russia’s biggest nuclear enterprises, which over the decades have served as a source of environmental contamination and human rights violations.

“The European court will definitely be reviewing questions of rights and the application of international legislation. We are hoping for a decision in our favor – such a decision would mark a new milestone in the history of Russian legislation,” said Kutepova. “I am sure that the judges don’t know anything about this problem and they will be surprised that it still exists.”

In 2004, government secrecy overrode an independent sociological study that was to be conducted in Ozersk. The study was the initiative of Planet of Hopes, and its intention was to study the community’s reaction to the region’s environmental problems, to study human rights violations, and to develop recommendations on social and environmental policy. Permission for Olga Tsipilova and Alexander Duka, two sociologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences Sociological Institute had been issued by local authorities.

Immediately before her departure, however, Tsipilova was summoned to the FSB for questioning over suspicions of espionage. The scholars were refused entry to Ozersk, yet the FSB neither opened a case or filed any charges.

Planet of Hopes has many times come out in favor of opening closed cities. In 2006, Kutepova presented Sergei Kiriyenko, chief of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, with a rights analysis of “On securing the special regimes of Minatom’s closed cities,” of July 11, 1996, which demands official security clearance for all residents of and visitors to closed cities. In the answer received by Planet of Hopes, Rosatom confessed that the problem of secrecy surrounding closed cities is indeed pressing, and asked that the organisation take part in a working group addressing the problem. Kutepova unfortunately has not been able to reach anyone in the working group via the telephone numbers she was provided in the invitation she received from Rosatom.