Prominent human rights advocacy group raided in St. Petersburg

Publish date: December 4, 2008

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG - Around noon on December 4th, a group of unidentified men wearing ski masks stormed into the premises of the human rights organisation Memorial in this city and locked themselves in together with four Memorial employees. The men, who later turned out to be executing a search warrant for federal prosecution, held the group’s office for six hours, blocking any access to Memorial management or the press.

Witnesses said that when the search began, four Memorial employees were working in the organisation’s office on Ulitsa Rubinsteina, in St. Petersburg’s Central District. They were forbidden to use mobile phones, while the visitors who had shown up for Thursday’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 police squad 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.

The search has been reported by witnesses to have been extremely thorough. According to Kosinova, all hard disks were also removed from the office computers and taken away.

Two vehicles – a police van and a car marked with a Russian Federation flag and prosecutorial insignia – were parked in front of the building where Memorial is based and which, because of ongoing renovation, is covered in scaffolding. The search continued until around 5:45pm.

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.

The warrant specified that the search was to be conducted in connection to investigating a criminal case initiated against a local publication called Novy Peterburg.

The case against Novy Peterburg, which gives a wide public forum to a variety of authors – including those promoting political views that may be seen as controversial or extreme – was triggered by one such article published in June 2007.

Prosecutors brought the case 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.

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.

“I have just spoken with Alevtina Ageyeva [Novy Peterburg’s general director, who continues to issue the publication under a different title, Minuty Veka], and she said that the paper has never had any kind of relations with Memorial, neither of a friendly nor of an antagonistic kind,” the renowned human rights activist Yury Vdovin told Bellona Web.

Vdovin, head of the human rights organisation Citizen’s Watch and board member of the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices, was among many others who came to Ulitsa Rubinsteina in support of Memorial.

The search warrant, however, hypothesises that Memorial’s office might contain documents that could show “who and which sources the paper has been receiving financing from.”

The very suggestion that such a link may exist between Memorial and Novy Peterburg amazed many closely involved in the local political opposition movements, including Andrei Dmitriyev, leader of the St. Petersburg branch of Eduard Limonov’s now defunct National Bolshevik Party and local activities coordinator for the opposition coalition Other Russia, also headed by Limonov.

Dmitriyev, who learnt from Bellona Web about Kalganov’s theory as outlined in the warrant, is personally acquainted with some of the authors Novy Peterburg has published.

Olga Kurnosova, who heads St. Petersburg’s branch of United Civil Front, a wide opposition movement led by famous chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, was likewise bewildered by the accusations.

“This is total nonsense, very strange, Memorial has never had anything to do with Novy Peterburg,” Kurnosova told Bellona Web in a telephone interview.

Kurnosova, too, is now subject of a criminal case initiated on the exotic suspicion that she bought black caviar during one of her trips to Astrakhan, where she had to return for questioning and from where she spoke when Bellona Web called for comments.

“I personally think that we might have caused disgruntlement by having shown in our office a film made by the director Nekrasov about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko,” Kosinova ventured, referring to the much-discucced documentary by Andrei Nekrasov called “Rebellion. The Case of Litvinenko.” The film follows the plight of Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and dissident, who died two years ago at age 43 in London after being poisoned with the radioactive substance Polonium-210 in what is believed to be the world’s first act of nuclear assasination.

“At the same time, [United Civil Front] distributes tapes with this film, and it can be easily watched on the Internet… I can only assume that a search undertaken for such a strange reason was an act of intimidation,” said Kosinova.

According to Memorial employees, they are preparing complaints that the group will be forwarding to the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s office.

“During the search, they were keeping out of the office me, the co-founder, they kept away our attorney, they kept away the district police inspector. The warrant was signed by the investigator himself, and the warrant specifies a different legal entity,” Kosinova said, listing the reasons that would make the potential basis for the group’s complaint.

She added that the official report drawn up by the men performing the search does not provide descriptions of the computer hard disks that had been removed during the search.

Memorial, founded with the purpose of preserving the memory of those killed during the political repressions of the Soviet era, is a long-time persecution survivor. Its official registration as a human rights movement in 1988 through 1990 – something the then-Soviet authorities were staunchly opposing – was one of the sweeping democratic campaigns launched by the burgeoning civil society in the new Russia, along with a demand to outlaw Article 6 of the Constitution in force at the time, which legalised the country’s one-party system.

Besides historical research and publicising documents detailing Soviet repressions, many groups operating under the Memorial umbrella are also actively engaged in promoting human rights causes.