Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 40

The Nizhegorod Oblast Court on October 13 granted a request from the regional prosecutor’s office to close down the Nizhny Novgorod-based Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (ORChD). Kavkazky Uzel reported that among the reasons cited by prosecutors for the group’s closure was the conviction last year of its director, Stanislav Dimitrievsky, for “extremist” activity, and the fact that the ORChD had not dissociated itself from that alleged activity and that Dimitrievsky remains its head. On February 3 of this year, Dimitrievsky was found guilty of inciting ethnic hatred and given a two-year suspended sentence (Chechnya Weekly, February 9). He was convicted for publishing two peace appeals by Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakaev in the society’s newspaper, Pravo-Zashchita, in March and April 2004 (see Chechnya Weekly, November 10 and 17, 2005; January 26, 2005), with prosecutors originally charging him with terrorism and later changing the charge to inciting ethnic hatred.

The ORChD said in a statement cited by MosNews on October 13 that prosecutors justified their demand for the group’s closure on the basis of the new law on non-governmental organizations that makes it illegal for an NGO to be headed by a person with a criminal record. The law, which came into effect early this year, imposed government oversight of NGO work and financing, giving the authorities scope to close down groups whose activities are perceived to contradict their stated goals or harm state interests.

As the Associated Press reported on October 13, the court order closing the ORChD came less than a week after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was known for her reporting on abuses in Chechnya. According to the news agency, several days before the court ruling, Dmitrievsky linked the prosecutors’ efforts to close the organization with Politkovskaya’s slaying.

According to Kavkazky Uzel, Dimitrievsky has filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg charging that his rights, including the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression as described in the European Convention on Human Rights, have been violated.

The ORChD’s closure was denounced by Russian human rights activists. on October 13 quoted Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as saying: “The authorities need uniform views on Chechnya. Chechnya must look like a dynamically developing region of Russia. Those that do not have enough healthy optimism for the coverage of Chechen events will be persecuted. A citizen does not have the right to express a position different from that of the state.” Oleg Novikov, head of public relations for the Public Verdict Foundation, an NGO that monitors police abuse, told “The suit on closing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society did not so much surprise as disturb us. It confirmed our worst fears about the new laws on public associations and counter-acting extremist activity. These laws permit the closure of organizations by absolutely unlawful methods.” Svetlana Gannushkina, chairwomen of the “Grazhdanskoe sodeistvie” (Civil Assistance) Committee, said the ruling on the ORChD meant the authorities could now close down any “disagreeable” public organization. “It is the first such decision, but I think it is far from the last,” quoted her as saying.

In a statement released on October 13, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch called ORChD’s closure “a blatant attempt to silence a strong critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya.” “Russia’s actions to quash the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society fly in the face of international standards protecting civil society,” the statement quoted Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, as saying. “This is a politically motivated ruling intended to silence an organization that works to stop abuses in Chechnya. The Russian government has moved to systematically eviscerate all checks on its power and civil society is its latest target.” Human Rights Watch called on Russia’s international partners to speak out against “this latest attack on civil society,” adding that the European Union, which will hold human rights consultations with Russia on November 8, followed by the EU-Russia summit in late November, “is particularly well-placed to do so.” “The EU should put human rights defenders and civil society at the top of its agenda with Russia,” Cartner said. “Deeper engagement with the EU should be conditioned upon the Russian government taking concrete steps to end official harassment and intimidation of NGOs and their activists, including those working on human rights in Chechnya.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also condemned the closure of the ORChD in an October 13 press release. It noted in particular that the ORChD’s publication, Pravo-Zashchita, which had a circulation of 5,000 and was distributed in the North Caucasus and several other Russian cities until September 2005, when it ran out of money, was regarded as “one of the few reliable sources on news in Chechnya.” “The closure of Pravo-Zashchita would further limit independent information from Chechnya,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The Russian people need this information more than ever, now that Anna Politkovskaya’s voice has been silenced by her terrible murder.”

The CPJ quoted ORChD head Stanislav Dmitrievsky as saying: “We are witnessing an intensified campaign of shuttering every single voice that has covered the Chechen conflict independently.” As the CPJ noted, Dmitrievsky and his colleague, Oksana Chelysheva, an editor for Pravo-Zashchita, both received threats in connection with their work with the ORChD (Chechnya Weekly, March 23 and May 25).