Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 107

Russian observers and media have been reacting to the May 28 incident at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport, in which some 100 copies of Amnesty International’s human rights report on Chechnya was seized by customs officials for containing “antigovernment, anti-Russian propaganda.” The reports were seized from Amnesty International researcher Mariana Katzarova who, at the invitation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, had come from London to attend a conference in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, on the subject of “democracy, rights and legality.” The conference was organized at the initiative of the Russian government and the Council of Europe (Segodnya, Moscow Times, June 1).

Katzarova said that customs officials who seized the material asked her why she was “siding with the Chechens” if she were not a Chechen herself. An anonymous official with the State Customs Committee, however, played down the political aspect, suggesting that Katzarova had violated the rules governing “the movement of merchandise” by failing to present proof that the material would not be used for “commercial purposes.” An anonymous customs official working at the airport was quoted as saying that Katzarova had not provided documents showing that the reports were being brought into Russia “for legal use” (Moscow Times, Segodnya, June 1).

Katzarova and various observers noted that the seizure of the Amnesty International reports was strongly reminiscent of Soviet-era practices. Sergei Kovalev, who was the Russian government’s human rights ombudsman in the early 1990s and now heads the human rights center of the group Memorial, said the incident was a manifestation of officially sanctioned “police tyranny” and that the customs officials could not have taken the decision to seize the material without approval from higher up. The Russian Union of Journalists called the incident an act of “undisguised censorship” (Segodnya, Moscow Times, June 1).