Last week, the rights group Derechos Digitales released the text of a worrying draft decree, signed by President Michelle Bachelet in June, that could greatly increase intrusive government access to personal data. The decree, which still needs to be approved by the Comptroller General’s Office to take force, would run counter to Chileans’ right to privacy and emulates some of the worst such policies around the globe.
The decree would require telecommunication companies to retain, for at least two years, data on electronic and mobile communications of everyone in the country, including phone calls, e-mail, and messaging cellphone applications. It greatly expands the types of data companies must store, while extending the retention period from one year to two. While it does not mandate retaining the content of the communications, it covers information like the location data and the phone numbers called that can provide a detailed portrait of the user’s intimate life, especially when collected at large scale or combined with other data. If the government knows that someone placed a call to a labor union representative or a suicide hotline, it can potentially draw conclusions about the caller, even without knowing what they said. Cellphone location data can provide authorities a detailed map of a person’s movements for years.
This is a grossly disproportionate intrusion on Chileans’ privacy. It is, of course, reasonable to demand disclosure of specific data to prevent or investigate crimes, subject to safeguards. But data retention under the decree would go much farther, affecting all users, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. The European Union’s top court, its Court of Justice, has twice struck down similar blanket data retention laws, noting that they impose an unjustifiably broad infringement of the right to privacy. The UK ignored the ruling and passed an expanded data retention law last year, but overall the rulings have fostered an encouraging trend in the EU. In contrast, such authoritarian countries as China and Russia have recently expanded their data retention laws to increase surveillance over their citizens.
Worse, while Chile’s decree would require a court order to intercept phone and other communications, it does not include such a requirement to access data already retained. Without judicial control, the decree could virtually turn the Chilean government into a “big brother” capable of knowing where everyone is, and whom they are contacting, all the time.
The draft also forbids companies from incorporating technology or equipment that can hinder the interception or recording of communications. If this provision is interpreted broadly to forbid encryption, it would set a troubling precedent. In the digital age, encryption is a cornerstone of security for vulnerable activists and journalists working in repressive regimes around the globe. It also protects millions of ordinary users from cybercriminals and malicious hackers. Even in the US, one of the most intrusive countries, lawmakers have not move forward with proposals to restrict encryption, acknowledging its key role to impede cybercrime. The Chilean government should set a positive example by promoting encryption as essential to security, rather than following the lead of countries like Russia, Ethiopia, and Turkey that have restricted it.
When it reviews the decree in coming days, the Comptroller General’s Office will decide whether it will protect Chileans’ right to privacy or allow the government to emulate authoritarian countries. There should be no doubt about its decision.
(Moscow) – A prominent Russian think tank, the SOVA Center, and its director are facing charges for violating the country’s draconian law on “undesirable organizations,” Human Rights Watch said today. SOVA Center is known for its research on nationalism, religious freedoms, and political radicalism, and has been monitoring the Russian authorities’ abuse of vague and overly broad anti-extremism legislation. The Russian authorities should drop the charges.
“The outrageous charges against SOVA Center offer a stark example of how the Russian government is using the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ to squeeze the life out of civil society and stifle free expression,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
SOVA’s director, Alexander Verkhovsky, told Human Rights Watch that on September 7, 2017, the Moscow city prosecutor’s office informed him that the organization and he, as director, were in violation of Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which prohibits participation in activities of foreign organizations designated as “undesirable.” The officials told Verkhovsky that the charges stemmed from hyperlinks on the SOVA website to sites of two donor organizations that had supported the center’s work in the past: The National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Foundations. Russian authorities had bannedboth organizations from Russia as “undesirable” in 2015.
Verkhovsky told Human Rights Watch that the SOVA center views these charges as the authorities’ attempt to put pressure on the organization.
The law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted by parliament in May 2015, authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Eleven groups have been placed on Russia’s blacklist, mainly American donor institutions and capacity building organizations.
Once designated “undesirable,” an organization can no longer arrange or participate in any projects or other activities in Russia. The law provides for administrative and criminal sanctions for Russian organizations and nationals that engage in “continued involvement” with “undesirable organizations.”
This offense is punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 rubles (approximately US$250) for individuals, up to 50,000 rubles (US$845) for officials and up to 100,000 rubles (US$1,690) for organizations. Russian nationals who continue to “be involved” with undesirable organizations, if sanctioned twice in a year, risk criminal prosecution, with fines of up to 500,000 rubles (US$8,500), restrictions on activities and movement, or a jail sentence of up to six years.
The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission) found that the law on “undesirable” organizations interferes with freedom of expression, and should be significantly amended.
“Once again it is painfully clear that the real target of the ‘undesirables law’ is not foreign organizations, but Russian independent groups” Williamson said. “The law runs contrary to Russia’s international human rights obligations and should be repealed without delay.”
(Berlin) – An Almaty court on September 7, 2017, convicted the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining critical newspapers in a politically motivated money laundering trial, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Medeu District Court barred the editor, Zhanbolat Mamay, from journalism, and restricted his freedom of movement for three years, and ordered him to perform 120 hours of community service. Mamay, who has been in detention since his arrest in February, was freed following the trial.
“While it’s wonderful that Mamay is home with his family, his prosecution was an example of the authorities’ blatant efforts to silence what remains of Kazakhstan’s independent media,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In prosecuting yet another journalist, the Kazakh government is making clear its contempt for free speech and critical expression.”
Kazakhstan’s international partners should challenge Mamay’s prosecution and call on the government to allow independent and critical media outlets to carry out their important work without retaliation or undue interference, Human Rights Watch said.
Mamay, 29, worked as editor-in-chief of Sayasy Kalam: Tribuna, an opposition newspaper in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Mamay had previously been an activist and the leader of an opposition youth group, Rukh Pen Til (Spirit and Language). In early 2012, authorities charged Mamay with “inciting social discord” following violent clashes between striking oil workers, other people, and law enforcement in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, in December 2011. After several months in detention, Mamay was released, and charges against him were not pursued.
Authorities arrested Mamay on February 10, 2017, on suspicion of using Tribuna to launder approximately US$110,000 over a three-to-four-year period.
Mamay was arrested the day the government’s anti-corruption agency released a statement claiming that in the course of its embezzlement investigation into former top officials of the Kazakhstan bank, BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Zhaksylyk Zharymbetov, and others, the agency identified “Ablyazov’s accomplice in Kazakhstan [as] Zhanbolat Mamayuly Mamay.”
The prosecution claimed that in 2011 Ablyazov and Zharymbetov involved Mamay in their efforts to whitewash embezzled BTA bank money, and that, from 2011 to 2014, they gave Mamay a total of US$110,000 in incremental amounts. According to the indictment, this sum is alleged to be just a part of a total of over US$7 billion in embezzled funds.
In June, an Almaty court convicted Ablyazov and several of his colleagues, including Zharymbetov, on multiple criminal charges, including membership of a criminal group, and large-scale embezzlement. Ablyazov was tried in absentia and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Zharymbetov, who had been extradited to Kazakhstan from Turkey in January 2017, was given a five-year suspended sentence.
Zharymbetov testified in court that Ablyazov initially directed him to give money to Mamay in 2011, and that he asked his sister in Almaty to give Mamay the money. Zharymbetov said that after he and Ablyazov parted ways in 2012, Zharymbetov also provided funds to Mamay on his own. Both Zharymbetov’s sister and her former husband testified they helped facilitate getting cash to Mamay.
Given that Zharymbetov gave this testimony after he was extradited from Turkey, and as he faced heavy criminal charges, it cannot be ruled out that he testified under duress, Human Rights Watch said.
Mamay acknowledged to the court that Zharymbetov supported his newspaper, but rejected the accusation that in accepting the financial donation from Zharymbetov, he helped launder money.
Mamay’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution relied on Zharymbetov’s testimony to seek to establish Mamay’s guilt, and produced no evidence that Mamay himself ever knowingly took part in any illegal or criminal activity. Mamay denies having ever met Ablyazov.
Many domestic and international media and human rights watchdogs expressed concern about the charges brought against Mamay and his arrest. In February 2017, Reporters Without Borders called on Kazakh authorities to drop the charges and release Mamay. In March, following worrying reports that Mamay had been beaten in custody, IFEX, the global free speech network, called on authorities to “stop the persecution of Zhanbolat Mamay and ensure his fair trial” and to “investigate thoroughly Mamay’s beating in the detention center.”
Kazakhstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and as such, has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. The use of questionable financial charges to bar Mamay from working as a journalist – a sanction not provided for money laundering in the Kazakh Criminal Code – indicates the authorities’ primary intent was to silence free speech in violation of those obligations.
“Kazakhstan’s concerted crackdown on critical media has been going on for several years, but it is never too late for the authorities to reverse course, uphold the country’s international obligations, and support press freedom,” Rittmann said. “Acknowledging that Mamay’s prosecution was designed to remove him from journalism, and cancelling the penalties imposed on him would be a great place to start.
(New York) – Singapore authorities should drop their investigation into a peaceful vigil outside Changi prison in July 2017 to protest the country’s death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should end its harassment of activists campaigning against capital punishment and respect their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
On July 13, the night before the scheduled execution of Malaysian national S. Prabagaran, a small group gathered outside Changi prison to hold a candlelight vigil with his family. Within 15 minutes, the police arrived and confiscated both the candles and photographs of Prabagaran that had been hung on a fence. However, they told the participants that they did not have to leave if they did not light any more candles.
More than six weeks later, the vigil participants received letters from the Singapore Police Force (SPF) summoning them for questioning on September 7 for holding an assembly without a permit in violation of Singapore’s restrictive Public Order Act. The activists have also been barred from leaving the country.
“The Singapore government seems frightened even by a peaceful candlelight vigil to support the relatives of a condemned man,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Once again Singapore’s draconian restrictions on public assemblies are being used to violate the rights of people to engage in peaceful protests.”
Singapore’s Public Order Act requires a police permit for any “cause-related” assembly held in a public place, or to which the public is invited. Organizing or participating in a protest without a permit is a criminal offense, even if the protest was peaceful and caused no disruption of public order. Under international law, freedom of assembly is a right and not a privilege and should not be subject to prior authorization by the authorities. It is widely accepted that no one should be subject to criminal penalties simply for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.
Those summoned to appear for questioning include Kirsten Han, a journalist and member of anti-death penalty organization We Believe in Second Chances; Terry Xu, editor of the online news portal The Online Citizen; Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME); and filmmaker Jason Soo, whose most recent film dealt with the detention of 22 activists under Singapore’s Internal Security Act in 1987. Although the letter the activists received did not mention a ban on travel, Terry Xu was prevented from crossing into Malaysia when he arrived at Woodlands Checkpoint on September 6, and the police have since confirmed that all of those summoned are subject to a travel ban at least until after questioning, and possibly for the duration of the investigation.
“Both the belated criminal investigation and the travel ban have all the hallmarks of a harassment campaign against those who dare to peacefully criticize the government,” Robertson said. “The Singapore government needs to end this dubious investigation, recognize that peaceful protest is part and parcel of the democratic process, and amend the Public Order Act to respect the right to freedom of assembly.”
(Berlin) – Russian police have systematically interfered with the presidential campaign of Russia’s leading political opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Human Rights Watch said today. Police across Russia have raided Navalny’s campaign offices, arbitrarily detained campaign volunteers, and carried out other actions that unjustifiably interfere with campaigning. In addition, radical nationalists and pro-Putin groups have physically attacked and threatened campaigners, and official investigations into these incidents have not been effective.
“The pattern of harassment and intimidation against Navalny’s campaign is undeniable,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian authorities should let Navalny’s campaigners work without undue interference and properly investigate attacks against them by ultra-nationalists and pro-government groups.”
In December 2016, Navalny announced he would run in Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. To date, he has opened more than 60 campaign offices in different regions of Russia. The extensive police harassment, and attacks on the local offices and campaigners by radical nationalist and pro-Putin groups in spring and summer this year clearly aim to intimidate campaigners and stifle the campaign, Human Rights Watch said.
Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, is formally disqualified from the presidential race due to an outstanding criminal conviction, the result of a politicized, unfair trial.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Navalny campaigners in Kazan, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Kaliningrad, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow and reviewed official documents related to the authorities’ actions and complaints to the police, as well as relevant public information including social media postings and videos.
“The use of specialist police and the label of ‘extremism’ as a pretext for raids, confiscations, and detentions suggests that authorities think it’s ‘extremist’ just to challenge President Vladimir Putin,” Williamson said.
Navalny campaigners and offices across Russia have also faced an increasing number of attacks by ultra-nationalist groups and activists. The attacks range from vandalizing campaign offices or campaigners’ homes, storming into meetings, destroying equipment, blocking the entrance to campaign events, and severely damaging or even burning campaigners’ cars. Attackers have also physically assaulted campaigners, pushing them, beating them, and throwing eggs and other objects at them. They have also carried out bomb scares and thrown a Molotov cocktail at the campaign office in the Stavropol. In some cases the attackers seek to hide their identities, while in other cases the assailants do not hide their identity but rather boast about their actions on social media.
In some of the mob attacks, police merely stood by and did nothing or arrived too late to catch the attackers. When campaigners filed complaints, authorities dutifully registered them, but typically failed to carry out an effective investigation, and in at least one case accused the campaigners of staging the attack for self-promotion.
“Navalny’s campaigners are getting hit from two sides – the ultra-nationalist and pro-government thugs who openly attack them with impunity, and officials, who use lame pretexts to detain and harass them,” Williamson said. “The message is not subtle and the result is the further elimination of any real alternatives in Russia’s political system.”
Alexei Navalny’s platform focuses on such issues as ending corruption and inequality, accountability for law enforcement and security agencies, and reversing Russia’s alleged growing isolation. In February 2017, Navalny opened his first campaign office in St. Petersburg. By August, 62 campaign offices were operating in different regions of Russia, with another 15 expected to open later in 2017. On March 20, when Navalny attended the opening of his office in Barnaul, the capital of Russia’s Altai region, unidentified men pelted him with capsules of bright green antiseptic solution.
On June 23, Russia’s Central Election Commission stated that Navalny could not be a presidential candidate due to his criminal conviction. In 2013, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement and handed a five-year suspended sentence. The case involved allegations that in 2009, while he was an advisor to the governor of Russia’s Kirov region, he used his position to arrange for a company owned by the regional government to sell timber to another company, which resold it at a higher price. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the case violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, and that his actions did not amount to embezzlement. Russia’s Supreme Court then sent the case for a re-trial, and in February 2017 a district court in Kirov once again delivered a guilty verdict.
The head of Navalny’s countrywide campaign, Leonid Volkov, stated on social media that the conviction will not stop Navalny running for president. Volkov also said that Navalny was planning to bring further cases to the ECtHR and explore other legal avenues to enable him to run.
Police Raids and Confiscation of Campaign Materials
Navalny’s campaign coordinator in Kaliningrad, Egor Chernyuk, told Human Rights Watch that police raided the campaign office when it opened in July:
The day after we opened the office [July 7], police searched [it]… they seized all [our] campaign materials, except the posters and the banners, to check them for extremism… It’s been weeks [close to six weeks] and they still haven’t returned them.
Chernyuk said that when he went to the Kaliningrad airport in early July to pick up a shipment of campaign newspapers, which report on corruption and also on Navalny’s program, an airport representative and a police officer informed him that the police had seized the shipment to examine it for extremist or other prohibited content. The officer did not provide a receipt, and the newspapers remain confiscated. In late August, Volkov published an allegedly leaked order by a high-level official from the Interior Ministry’s transportation department. The order, dated June 4, called on local police to seize, “under one pretext or another,” a large shipment of Navalny’s campaign materials en route to Chernyuk.
Elvira Dmitrieva, the campaign coordinator in Kazan, told Human Rights Watch that on July 7, police arrived at the local campaign office for what they called an “inspection” and seized 10,000 campaign flyers, alleging that some “information needed to be verified,” but otherwise providing no grounds for their actions. The materials are still with the police.
Also, on July 12, Delovaya Liniya, a private postal company, informed Dmitrieva that on July 4, the police had seized a large shipment of campaign newspapers that she was expecting. The company provided no further information. At about the same time, media reported similar developments in Ufa, Saratov, and Nizhny Novgorod. A spokesman for Delovaya Liniya told the press that “in several cities, cargo [meant for Navalny’s local campaign offices] was seized by police officials” and “Delovaya Liniya staff are obligated to comply with demands by state authorities.”
Miroslav Valkovich, the campaign coordinator in Krasnodar, told Human Rights Watch that police searched the campaign office there on July 7 and seized 940 campaign newspapers. Valkovich said that when asked about the reasons for their actions, police officials vaguely referred to a “complaint” they had supposedly received but refused to provide any detail. The police have not returned the newspapers.
On July 11, police raided the campaign office in Khabarovsk. They told the regional coordinator, Alexei Vorsin, that they were looking into allegations of “unlawful campaigning activities” and seized 2,000 flyers for further examination. Vorsin told Human Rights Watch that police have not returned the flyers.
Sergei Bespalov, the campaign coordinator in Irkutsk, told Human Rights Watch that in July the police had searched the office three times, alleging “unlawful campaign activity,” and seized 22,200 flyers and 12 campaign street displays. Bespalov said that police sent the materials for linguistic review. On August 7, police seized 3,000 newspapers from a shipment Bespalov was picking up at the airport. The officers claimed that the police had received two phone calls from “concerned citizens” warning them that the shipment contained extremist materials and dangerous objects. The newspapers, the displays, and the flyers are still with the police.
All the campaign regional coordinators interviewed by Human Rights Watch described official interference with their work, including through arbitrary detention, administrative penalties, and arbitrary refusals to approve setting up campaign displays.
Bespalov told Human Rights Watch that police in Irkutsk regularly detain volunteers when they hand out flyers, and mostly release them quickly without charge, but refuse to return the flyers. One had to pay a fine of 1,500 rubles (approximately US$25) for supposedly “unlawful campaigning activity.” Bespalov said police also put pressure on the parents of Navalny’s teenage supporters, phoning them, inviting them for informational “conversations,” insinuating that their children could get into trouble, and urging the parents to discourage them from any involvement with the campaign and anti-corruption protests.
The campaign’s St. Petersburg coordinator, Polina Kostylyova, told Human Rights Watch that setting up a campaign sidewalk display in the city center is “next to impossible,” and that municipal authorities authorize them only in the outskirts (sidewalk displays, typically large signboards, with campaigners nearby handing out leaflets, are generally registered as pickets and require authorization by local authorities).
From February through to mid-August, St. Petersburg authorities rejected 10 notifications by Navalny’s local campaigners to set up campaign displays in the city center. In four instances, Kostylyova appealed the decision to a court and lost. One case, involving a display that would have been 200 meters from a church, was particularly absurd, she said:
In early July, we were planning to set up a campaign display in the city center, not far from the metro. We wanted to have the display at the entrance to a garden, which [in turn] led to a church. So, the municipality argued that having a public event anywhere near a Russian Orthodox church could result in offending religious feelings of believers [a criminal offense under Russian law].
The municipality also noted that there were several major roads nearby and the display could distract drivers and pedestrians.
Kostylyova and Valkovich said police often detain campaigners handing out flyers in St. Petersburg and Krasnodar respectively, hold them in custody for several hours without explanation and then release them without charge.
In Krasnodar, the municipality allows campaign displays to be set up only “in the open fields” outside the city, Valkovich said.
In Kazan, police detained five campaign volunteers as they were setting up a display on May 14 in the city center. According to Dmitrieva, police officers ordered the volunteers to remove the display because the municipality had not authorized it. They tried to cooperate, but police had seized the tools needed to dismantle it. When they told police this, they were taken to the station for the night. The next day, a local court sentenced one to 10 days detention for disobeying police orders. Two weeks later, the others were sentenced to 10 to 12 days’ detention for disobeying police orders and/or violating regulations on public gatherings.
Kazan police detained two more volunteers on July 8 as they were handing out campaign flyers while standing at a significant distance from one another, and charged them with violating regulations on public gatherings, “the distance between them being less than 30 meters.” A local court sentenced one to 30 hours of community service and the other to 15 days’ detention.
On August 4, the campaigners made another attempt to set up a display in Kazan, near a metro station. Anti-extremism police showed up, seized the display, and took the activists to the station. The campaigners were allowed to leave, but police kept the display for “expert analysis.” On August 6, the campaigners again tried to set up a display. While they were assembling it, anti-extremism police arrived and told them to take it down because it was identical to the one being examined for extremism. That month, anti-extremism police detained Ruslan Shaveddinov, Navalny’s campaign press secretary, when he was visiting the Kazan office. Police claimed that they had information regarding Shaveddinov making “public calls for engagement in extremist activities” – a crime under Russian law. Three hours later, they released Shaveddinov without charges.
On August 23, a court in Kazan sentenced Dmitrieva to 10 days’ detention for “repeated violation” of regulations on mass gatherings. The charges stemmed from an announcement on the Team Navalny-Kazan group page, on VK – the top social media platform for Russian-speakers – calling on all Navalny supporters in Kazan to stop by the campaign office, pick up campaign newspapers and flyers, and hand them out. The judge accepted the police argument that as the administrator of the Team Navalny-Kazan account on social media, Dmitrieva had aimed to encourage an “unlimited number of people… to take part in an unsanctioned public event.”
Vorsin, in Khabarovsk, told Human Rights Watch that local authorities closely monitor their campaign displays and threaten activists with detention and other sanctions. He said:
A representative of the municipality stands by the whole time and literally controls each and every step of our volunteers. One step to the left, one step to the right and they are up in arms, calling it an unlawful public action, saying they’d be calling the police to have charge sheets issued.
Attacks by Radical Nationalist and Pro-Putin Groups
Some of the attackers appear to be part of organized groups, such as the South East Radical Block (SERB), Cossacks, the National Liberation Movement (NOD), and Putin’s Brigades.
Putin’s Brigades is a movement in Krasnodar region that appears connected to a local politician and consists mostly of women past retirement age who supposedly desire to unite all Putin supporters against those who “undermine” Putin’s policies.
Violent Attacks on Campaigners and Those Cooperating with Them
Bespalov, in Irkutsk, told Human Rights Watch that on May 31 several men with clubs and baseball bats beat Vladilen Bugaev, 33, at the local campaign office. Bugaev’s father is the landlord of those premises. Bugaev and two witnesses to the attack said the assailants screamed, “We know everything about you – you’re renting this office to Navalny…” They also ordered Bugaev to break the lease.
Bugaev said he was in the office at 6:30 p.m. with two friends. The office door was unlocked, and three men walked in asking about a company that had relocated from the building. The visitors left and then returned with another three to four men. Several of them attacked Bugaev, kicking and punching him and beating him with baseball bats, while ordering him to evict Navalny. The others pushed his friends into a corner and held them there – asking their names and about their links to Navalny.
Bugaev described the assailants as “well trained” and said in a media interview that he saw a gun slip out of one man’s pocket. “When they beat you, they beat you, when they are out to kill, they kill, not talk. If they had wanted to kill me they would’ve killed me,” he said. Bugaev sustained multiple hematomas and abrasions and had to get six stitches and other medical treatment.
The police promptly opened an investigation. “There were several security cameras . . . and the men didn’t try to conceal their identity, hide their face… It was all out in the open,” Bespalov said. Bespalov said police questioned Bugaev, watched the surveillance videos with him, and supposedly established the identity of the main perpetrators. The case was then transferred to the Irkutsk regional police.
Bespalov and his fellow campaigners told Human Rights Watch they are now concerned that the investigation has stalled. Bespalov also flagged that prior to finally signing a lease agreement with Bugaev’s father, he tried renting six different properties for the campaign office. All the landlords seemed accommodating at first and then refused to sign the lease at the last moment. One told Bespalov that he changed his mind after some “bandits” paid him a visit and coerced him into pulling out.
Attacks on Campaign Offices and Campaigners’ Homes and Vehicles
Kostylyova, in St. Petersburg, told Human Rights Watch about an arson attack at the local campaign office before the March 26 countrywide anti-corruption protests initiated by Navalny. Early on the morning of March 23, the police called her saying that someone had set the office door on fire overnight, causing considerable damage. The police investigation into the attack has yielded no results.
Chernyuk in Kaliningrad told Human Rights Watch that on July 6, the day before the opening of the local office, an unknown individual painted “Navalny is a fascist” on the office door. On July 21, someone pelted the windows with small metal balls, apparently from a slingshot, breaking one. Chernyuk’s home and the homes of several volunteers sustained damage from similar attacks. Chernyuk said:
[Some people] repeatedly vandalize the lobbies of the buildings where our volunteers live – they paint obscene pictures on the walls and write threats and all sorts of offensive comments. Same goes for me. Also, on July 11, someone shot a paintball gun at my apartment window, splattering it with paint. And on August 1, they threw a brick into my apartment, shattering the window.
Chernyuk said police officials arrive when called, but have not conducted an effective investigation into any of the incidents. His appeal to the governor of Kaliningrad about the persistent attacks has received no response.
Anastasia Deyneka, campaign coordinator in Rostov-on-Don, told Human Rights Watch that her predecessor, Elena Kulikova, had her vehicle damaged by unidentified individuals on July 26. The assailants slashed the tires and splashed the car with ink. The police registered the complaints but otherwise the investigation has gone nowhere. Four weeks later, Kulikova resigned from her position citing a busy schedule.
Deyneka also described how local authorities, Cossacks, and NOD disrupted the opening of the campaign office in the city. On April 8, Navalny’s national campaign boss, Volkov, planned to mark the opening by holding a news conference and meeting with local supporters at the Railroad Workers’ Culture Palace. That morning, however, the venue suddenly canceled the reservation because of an ad hoc training organized by the Federal Security Service. The campaign decided to hold the events instead at the Ermitazh Hotel, where Volkov was staying. A large group of men dressed in Cossack attire, some armed with traditional Cossack whips, blocked the hotel’s entrance. They were soon joined by a group of NOD members with anti-Navalny posters.
Navalny’s supporters called the police. Although several police vehicles arrived, the officers watched as the Cossacks and their allies threatened the Navalny supporters with whips, yelled at volunteers, pushed and refused to let them through, and demanded that Volkov come out “to talk.” When Volkov eventually complied, the Cossacks and NOD members shouted abuse and demanded that he leave the city. Volkov returned to the hotel and met with volunteers who had snuck past the Cossacks.
Valkovich, in Krasnodar, also described to Human Rights Watch an attack on local campaigners. On April 20, a pro-Navalny Cossack activist, Evgeny Panchuk, gave a news conference at the local campaign office criticizing Russia’s government and expressing support for Navalny. Men in Cossack attire stormed into the room shouting abuse. They ransacked the premises, threw eggs and flour at Panchuk, punched him and several other Navalny supporters, and left. The office called the police, who arrived and questioned some of those present. The investigation has yielded no results.
Valkovich also said Putin’s Brigades engaged in frequent constant attacks against the Krasnodar campaign office. He said that since spring 2017, Putin’s Brigades activists – mostly women past retirement age – had raided the office 14 times, bursting in, ransacking the premises, throwing things, damaging office equipment, yelling, and stealing campaign newspapers and flyers. “At first, they just stopped by to talk to us… And then, they started stealing campaigning materials from the office and damaging our property. What they started doing was full blown hooliganism. Last time [on August 3] they broke the lower glass panel on the office door.”
With each raid, the campaigners called the police, but in some cases the attackers fled before police showed up and in others, the officers simply stood there, asked the women to leave, but did not physically remove them or take other action. Valkovich said the authorities registered his complaints after every incident, but not one has resulted in any penalty against the offenders, and the raids have continued.
Since it opened in April, Navalny’s campaign office in Stavropol, another region in southern Russia, has been reporting to media police interference and threats from non-state actors, including Cossacks. Late at night on June 10, unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail into the office, shattering a glass panel. The authorities opened an investigation, but are treating as possible suspects Yaroslav Sinyugin, who coordinated Navalny’s campaign in Stavropol, and several of his colleagues.
Sinyugin said, “The arson attempt is used by the investigation to put pressure [on the campaigners] … Law enforcement officials are attempting to make one of the activists testify against me.”
On August 19, Sinyugin resigned. Two days earlier, unidentified individuals had slashed the tires on his car. “For me, family comes first. I really like my job with the campaign but it entails particular risks,” he explained in an interview about his resignation.
A Russian YouTuber recently noted that internet users in Russia today, “have one foot in jail.”
Less succinctly but with greater gravitas, the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination last week said that Russia needs to do something about its anti-extremist legislation, which in recent years has become a key instrument in the authorities’ crackdown on free expression, especially online.
The Committee has criticized Russia’s “anti-extremism” law in particular, recommending a more precise definition of “extremism” and suggesting that Russia bin its “Federal List of Extremist Materials,” an ambiguous and contradictory document which includes over 4,000 items.
It’s a welcome move. There currently seem to be no limits to how far Russian authorities are willing to stretch “anti-extremist” censorship, restrict access to information they deem sensitive, or use the law at will simply to punish critics. This law is the backbone of an array of legislation on extremism, which in recent years grew dramatically and continues to expand.
One example is the 2013 law that criminalized, “insulting religious believers’ feelings.” Mocking the Orthodox Church – a move against Russia’s national ideology of “traditional values” – can therefore be considered act of extremism. Just a few weeks ago, a court in Sochi fined a man roughly US$850 for re-posting satirical images of Jesus on his social media page, even though he posted the images in 2014 and had since deleted them. Other examples include a researcher convicted for inciting extremism after sharing a statement of a far-right nationalist group on his social network page; a blogger, who got a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “justification of terrorism” after he wrote a critical post about Russia’s foreign policy in Syria. The list goes on.
To be sure, all kinds of expression can still be found online; indeed it’s the only place in Russia where this can happen. But the authorities have been steadily picking away at it, at times casting even the mildest forms of criticism of the government or debate on certain topics, including Ukraine, religion, LGBT issues, and others, as threats to state security, and public stability. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people who went to prison for “extremist” speech almost doubled.
The UN’s recommendations could not be more timely. Russia’s overly broad extremism legislation should be amended immediately. Politically motivated prosecutions for, “public calls for separatism,” “offending feelings of religious believers.” or “incitement to hatred,” including for online statements, should end. Restrictions on online content should apply only to content that is truly harmful and inherently criminal in nature, not merely to views and opinions, even if they may be offensive to some, including the government.
(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities have jailed Mehman Aliyev, the director of the country’s last remaining independent media outlet, filing charges on alleged tax and other offenses against him in retaliation for his journalism, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should drop the criminal charges against Aliyev and immediately free him.
Aliyev (no relation to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev) is the director of Turan, an independent news agency that has reported on a wide range of political, economic, and social issues since its founding in 1990. On August 25, 2017, a court in Baku placed Aliyev in pretrial detention for three months during the investigation against him on charges of tax evasion, abuse of office, and illegal business activity. If convicted, Aliyev could face a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
“Aliyev, and Turan, are the latest victims in the government’s campaign to erase independent media in Azerbaijan,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of locking up journalists, the Azerbaijan government should just let them do their work.”
The charges stem from an investigation that the Taxation Ministry opened into Turan on August 7. The ministry told media outlets that Aliyev is accused of violating Azerbaijani law on grants, which requires groups to register all grant contracts. The ministry stated that Aliyev bore responsibility for the agency’s failure to register 148,310 AZN (US$87,268) in grants that it received from 2010 to 2014, and for its failure to pay AZN 60,080 (US$35,352) for the period 2010 to 2016.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have repeatedly called on the Azerbaijani government to reform its laws imposing overly cumbersome grant-registration requirements, which allow the authorities virtually unlimited powers to deny the registration of grant funds.
Turan’s bank accounts have been frozen, and its staff announced in a statement that it would suspend its activities starting September 1.
Turan and Aliyev had fully cooperated with the investigation, but authorities raided the agency’s office on August 16, confiscating documents and the accountant’s computer. On August 24, Aliyev went voluntarily with his lawyer to the Taxation Ministry for questioning, in response to a request from an investigator and a prosecutor.
Officials refused to allow Aliyev’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, to be present, claiming that Aliyev’s status in the investigation had changed from “witness” to “suspect,” and that Agayev would need to get official permission to represent his client. This was not possible because it was the end of the working day. Regardless of the time of day or night, an individual in interrogation custody has the right to a lawyer, Human Rights Watch said.
Azerbaijan has a long record of state antagonism toward independent and opposition media, Human Rights Watch said.
Azerbaijani authorities have used bogus tax-related and other charges to jail critical journalists and bloggers. In July, authorities sentenced Faig Amirli, financial director of the already closed, pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, to three years and three months in prison. Aziz Orujov, head of the recently-closed Kanal 13 online TV channel, has been awaiting trial on tax-related charges since June.
Aliyev’s arrest and the investigation against Turan are the latest government moves in its vicious crackdown on critical media in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 among 180 countries for press freedom. At least eight journalists and bloggers are in prison on politically motivated charges. Among them is Mehman Huseynov, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, who is serving two years in prison on bogus defamation charges.
Azerbaijani authorities have permanently blocked the websites of some major media outlets critical of the government, and in March amended laws to tighten control over online media.
In its August 25 statement, Turan said that high-level government officials had in recent weeks offered Aliyev “some government-backed ‘financial aid’ for Turan’s operations in exchange of ‘loyalty,’ . . . [and] things became rather complicated when [Aliyev] publicly criticized the government’s campaign” to give free apartments to journalists on National Press Day.
Starting in 2014, the authorities used the same combination of tax and illegal business activity charges that Aliyev is facing against a number of the country’s leading independent human rights groups and their leaders. The leaders were imprisoned, and most were released by 2016. The organizations had to close following spurious tax audits and criminal investigations.
“Who at this point can seriously believe that this is not politically motivated case to silence a strong, independent voice in Azerbaijan’s deserted independent media landscape,” Denber said. “If the Azerbaijani authorities truly have well-founded financial claims against Turan, there is no reason these could not be sorted out without resort to prison or other excess. It’s not too late for the Azerbaijani to come clean, and free Aliyev.”