Russia: evidence of further erosion of civil liberties

Lev Ponomarev
Human rights activist Lev Ponomarev

The beginning of this week was overshadowed by more worrying news from Russia, where another human rights group has been the target of heavy-handed policing, which activists claim is politically motivated. Veteran campaigner Lev Ponomarev (in the picture above) was forcibly evicted from the Moscow city centre offices of his prominent “For Human Rights” group along with fellow workers and members of the ALDE Party member Yabloko who had gone along in a show of support. They claim they were manhandled by the security officials during the eviction and left with cuts and bruises.

The ALDE Party was swift to react to the news. Sir Graham Watson MEP, President of the ALDE Party urged the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Catherine Ashton, to take decisive and concerted action to safeguard human rights and civil liberties in Russia.

The Russian authorities say the operation was prompted by a dispute over the lease of the offices. Officials say the lease has expired, but the group, which has occupied the site for 15 years, says the rent has been paid until the end of the month. Council officials had arrived to evict the campaign group from the premises on Friday afternoon but members locked themselves inside and a stand-off ensued. Eyewitnesses say security guards eventually stormed the building in the early hours of Saturday morning and bundled Mr Ponomarev from the building, along with the Yabloko leader and key opposition figure Sergei Mitrokhin.

Sir Graham said: ‘’I am appalled to hear the reports of intimidation and brutality coming out of Russia from our member party Yabloko. I am relieved to hear that the party leader, Sergei Mitrokhin, is relatively unharmed and remains unbowed despite his ordeal. The party continues to have our unwavering support in its important work for liberalism.”

“What has happened has been portrayed as a straightforward dispute over a lease, but in reality it is much more than that. This is yet another worrying sign that civil liberties are increasingly coming under concerted attack from the Russian authorities. The intention is clearly to ride roughshod over the agreed international norms of civilized human society.”

’This is not the first time an incident like this has occurred. We flagged up our concerns with the EU’s head of foreign policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton, earlier this year and she promised to follow closely any further incidents of persecution and intimidation in Russia. We now call on Baroness Ashton to take targeted action to limit these curbs on human rights, civil liberties and legitimate calls for democratic change in the country.

There are reports of many NGOs having been raided in recent months. It follows legislation passed since Vladimir Putin was re-elected president last year requiring any group receiving international funding to register as ‘foreign agents’. Campaigners believe this is no coincidence and the drive to reinforce human rights in Russia is coming under sustained attack. Mr Ponomarev has publicly refused to register his group.