ERC Bellona’s Nikitin to meet prosecutors over administrative allegations next week

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Nikitin said he would be flying from Oslo to St. Petersburg for a meeting with prosecutors scheduled on Wednesday, May 22, to discuss the administrative charges, which were finally received by the organization’s lawyer, Artyom Alexeyev, on Monday, May 6.

The prosecutors attached a letter summoning Bellona ERC Executive Director Nikolai Rybakov to appear at their offices on Monday, May 13, to discuss the alleged violations, which prosecutors told him the organization had 30 days to rectify. The clock stared running with the receipt of the prosecutors’ communiqué.  

If by that deadline fire and health inspectors and prosecutors rule ERC Bellona to still be in violation, the organization faces a fine as high as $20,000.

The charges, which range from the arbitrary to outright bizarre, are the result of an unannounced swoop on ERC Bellona on March 19 by prosecutors’ representatives, and health and fire inspectors.

Rybakov immediately submitted 76 pages of documents refuting each of the prosecutors claim on May 14, a day after receiving the prosecutors’ letter.

When Rybakov arrived at the prosecutors’ office, for the May 13 appointment, he was forced to wait for some time before ultimately being told that only Nikitin could discuss the charges with them.

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It was on of more than a half dozen meetings Rybakov has been summoned to attend since late March – after the organization delivered 15 tomes of documentation within three days of the raid – only to be turned away.

Are prosecutors’ actions more foreboding than they seem?

One concern raised by Nikitin about the stutter-step dealings with the prosecutors’ office is that they may be foreplay to lodging more serious allegations in the form of a so-called notice of violation, something that has been handed down to the vote monitoring NGO Golos and several other NGOs for failing to register as a “foreign agent” under the Duma’s draconian new law.

The law passed in the Duma in a rush job over the summer and came into force in November. Its provisions stipulate that Russian NGOs that receive foreign fund and are engaged in vaguely defined “political activities” must register as so-called “foreign agents,” effectively branding them as spies.

In late April, Golos was fined $10,000 and its executive director, Liliya Shibanova, $3000 for not registering as foreign agents after receiving – and rapidly returning – $10,000 in Prize money from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Sakharov Freedom Prize.

Golos revealed massive vote fraud skewed toward the Kremlin’s United Russia party in Russia December 2011 Duma elections, after which dozens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow and other major Russian cities for months on end to protest the ballot box shenanigans.

NGOs throughout Russian, including ERC Bellona and Bellona Murmansk, boycotted registering as foreign agents. Both Nikitin and Bellona Murmansk director Andrei Zolotkov have both defied registering the organizations as foreign agents because they deal with ecological issues and don’t engage in politics.

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Nevertheless, Russian prosecutors have targeted more than 30 environmental organizations over past weeks with notices of violations of the foreign agent law, according to a list compiled by Greenpeace Russia.

Neither Greenpeace, nor Bellona’s two offices were included in that list.

The Murmansk-based ecological group “Nature and Youth” (Priroda I Molodezh in Russian) became the most recent addition to the list of ecological organizations receiving notices of violation of the foreign agent law.

Murmansk prosecutors told the organization – which has a sister-NGO in Norway called Natur og Ungdom, which also means Nature and Youth –  that it had run afoul of the “political activity” section of the new NGO law for including in its charter a description of how it works to help form local environmental legislation. Prosecutors also called it on the carpet for receiving foreign funding.

Notices of violation popping up in a variety of forms

But Nikitin said that notices of violations have started proliferating in different forms in the past several days, and that all of their permutations can eventually lead to forcing an NGOs to register as foreign agents, or face the $13,000 fines.

For instance, Nikitin said that Zolotkov, who had previously been active in the Kremlin opposition party Yabloko, was warned by prosecutors’ not to use Bellona Murmansk as a vehicle for propagating the Yabloko party line.

Zolotkov has repeatedly stated that his former political affiliations are entirely separate from his work at Bellona Murmansk, and he promised Murmansk prosecutors that this would remain the case.

“The notices of violations can come in different ways – the harsh ones outright accusing an organization of violating the foreign agent law, like Golos received, or as more subtle threats that lead to the same fate,” said Nikitin.

So far, said Nikitin, ERC Bellona has not received anything he would construe as a notice of violation, but said that “it was impossible to speculate” as to whether or not the organization would receive one.

Possible prosecutorial grudges against Nikitin?

As the single person ever to be cleared of treason charges brought against him by Russia’s security services, Nikitin may have to contend with lingering grudges within the St. Petersburg legal establishment.

A former submarine captain and navel nuclear safety inspector, Nikitin was in 1996 charged with treason and espionage for co-authoring Bellona’s report entitled “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination.”

After 11 months of incarceration at St. Petersburg’s Federal Security Service, or FSB – the successor organization to the KGB – and a five-year legal battle, Nikitin was finally cleared of all charges by the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court in September of 2000.

The exoneration was a major embarrassment to St. Petersburg city and FSB prosecutors.

Fire inspectorate charges can be arbitrarily applied

Alexeyev commented that the six-page long letter from a prosecutor identified as O.A. Levchenko to ERC Bellona was “an entire catalogue of violations, the majority of which are fantasies of the regulatory bodies.”

Nikitin agrees, but is especially wary of the alleged fire code violations, as he says they are the accusations that can be most arbitrarily applied.

“We have never had any dealings with the fire inspectorate, so their involvement is strange,” said Nikitin.

“If they are concerned for out health and safety of our employees, that is one thing,” he said dryly. “But if they use the alleged violations to push another agenda, that will be something altogether different.”

If the organization is eventually found in violation of any of the administrative charges, Nikitin said ERC Bellona would challenge “every point and every allegation until we achieve satisfaction.”

Primary among the violations handed down by the prosecutor’s office were complaints that ERC Bellona’s fire alarm is out of tune with current and recently changed rules.

Nikitin said the organization is currently at considerable technical and financial pains to install a new alarm system, which could cost as much as 500,000 roubles ($15,000).

Other charges levied by the fire inspectorate were a lack of a sufficient number of fire extinguishers, supposedly flammable material behind a wall panel, and lack of clear evacuation instructions, which inspectors claim they discovered during the March 19 raid.

Rybakov furnished proof in his May 14 letter that ERC Bellona now has a fire extinguisher in every room, that the flammable materials have been removed, that works on the fire alarm were underway, and that the office had always had clearly marked fire evacuation routes.

Protecting ERC Bellona from computer-triggered epidemics

One of the more bizarre claims leveled at ERC Bellona is the epidemiological and radiation hazards posed by spending more than 50 percent of work time in front of a computer. Prosecutors said ERC Bellona had failed to compel employees to receive regular chest x-rays and photo flourographic exams in keeping with Russia’s labor codes on “arduous labor conditions.”

Rybakov refuted these claims by sending documentary proof that most of ERC Bellona’s employees had, in fact, received the screenings, but refuted that ERC Bellona’s work falls in the “arduous labor” category.

He further furnished independent documentation that air quality, electromagnetic fields, artificial lighting conditions, vibration, noise, levels of positive and negative air ions in the office’s air, and the content of harmful chemical substances present in the office’s atmosphere were well within specifications.

On the same day Alexeyev received the prosecutors’ list of complaints, prosecutors also demanded that Lyubov Yermakova, ERC Bellona’s bookkeeper pay a personal 5000 rouble ($160) fine for supposedly not handing in a document detailing the number people employed at ERC Bellona. The alleged absence of the document constituted a violation of Russian federal statistics codes, prosecutors said. 

Yermakova has not paid the fine, and ERC Bellona intends to appeal it.

Under NGO laws that were in effect prior to the foreign agent law, ERC has been providing that information to the Justice Ministry, and publishes it on its website. 

Charles Digges