Oksana Chelysheva stood outside the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow trying to look cheery in the blustery late January cold. Just moments before, the court had ruled her Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), a non-governmental organization that has monitored the human rights situation in Chechnya, a terrorist organization. I filmed the proceedings undercover in the courtroom, catching the judges reading the verdict.
The ruling, said Chelysheva, is part of a steady campaign by the Kremlin to erode human rights in Russia. It coincided with the one-year anniversary of a new law to limit the ability of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to receive foreign funding and operate independently. The law established a new government agency, staffed by former intelligence and security agents. The agency has the right to attend any NGO event, review all their documents and have access to planning and funding. Democracy activists consider it the latest salvo in President Vladimir Putin's attempts to centralize control in Russia and eliminate independent voices. Already, the independent press has been stifled, big business effectively placed under government control and regional elections compromised.
According to Amnesty International, which opposes the ruling, the RCFS was closed down last October largely due to the new anti-extremism and NGO laws that make it illegal for an organization to be headed by a person convicted of "extremist" activities. The law makes it illegal for the executive director of the RCFS, Stanislav Dmitrievskii, to run an independent organization in Russia. Dmitrievskii had been convicted on February 3, 2006, of "race hate" for publishing nonviolent articles by Chechen separatist leaders. He was, said Amnesty International, convicted for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and should not have faced trial in the first place.
Russian Supreme Court
"It's evident that a very dangerous precedent has been set right now for other human rights organizations in Russia," Chelysheva said. "It's a warning for all the other NGOs. And it's a warning for Europe and the free world in general, because it's clear that after completely disregarding all the support we have obtained from public figures from all the continents, it doesn't matter." Author Elie Wiesel, who met with Chelysheva earlier this year, has pledged to organize an international gathering in Grozny, Chechnya, in support of the group.
The RCFS is a small operation of fewer than 15 people, 10 of whom work out of Chechnya. But the organization has a large impact, monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya and channeling daily news and information out of the war-shattered province to other news organizations. It is the only organization of its kind, and, because of its sensitive work, it has attracted the particular ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With a mandatory draft still in place, the war in Chechnya remains a highly contentious issue for Russians, many of whom would like to avoid participation in the war. The military is notorious for dedovschina, or extreme hazing, and torture. Last year, 16 soldiers were officially listed as killed in hazing incidents, and 276 others committed suicide.
"It's evident that a very dangerous precedent has been set right now for other human rights organizations in Russia," Chelysheva said.
The RCFS doesn't just limit its work to providing news out of Chechnya. It also works to help torture survivors. One woman, a former psychologist in Chechnya who refused to give her name out of fear of further persecution, said the society saved her life. "I was tortured with electric shock," she said. "They hanged me. They used different kinds of torture. They beat me up severely. If [the society] ceases to exist, we will become absolutely helpless and unprotected."
The fate of Russia's estimated 450,000 NGOs remains uncertain. According to the new law, all are required to follow the dictates of a new government agency staffed by intelligence and security agents. Registration with the new agency is a Byzantine process that often allows the agency to reject the legality of an NGO for an obscure technical reason. Once registered, the NGOs are subject to scrutiny, with meetings open to agency officers, and all foreign funding must be listed. Organizations that deal with the war in Chechnya are under particular fire.
The reputable Committee of Soldiers' Mothers has answered repeated calls for court appearances. U.S.-funded NGOs are not escaping scrutiny either. When the law first went into effect last year, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were temporarily shut down until they provided the new agency with paperwork. The largest domestically funded NGO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Society, was shut down last year and had more than 6 million dollars in bank assets frozen. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's top oil magnate, remains in prison on tax and corruption charges.
Presidential adviser Ella Panfilova, who advised Putin on this law, said that, while it's not perfect, critics are overreacting. "Today the law is not worse than in any other countries," she argued. "It's not good. I cannot say that it is great or perfect. It's mediocre. But it doesn't have anything terrible in it right now. The problem is how it will be applied. There are many articles which are very vague."
Paranoia about U.S. involvement is part of the problem for NGOs like RCFS. The United States supports many Russian NGOs through grants from the National Endowment for Democracy. Additionally, prominent nonprofits such as the Soros Foundation support local groups, and Human Rights Watch operates a Moscow office.
In the wake of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which was widely regarded in Russia as orchestrated by the United States, many Russians have developed what is called "orange paranoia." Many support Putin's law against nonprofits and think Russia is already a democratic country and that the law is necessary for maintaining autonomy.
"I think most NGOs are already checked in Russia, but it should be fixed in law, because now they are working in other ways [that are] not legal," said Dmitry Lukichyoo, an 18-year-old economics student in Moscow. "Only we should choose our leaders and not do like the Ukraine, where, like we all think, the government was brought by USA."
But Chelysheva and her colleagues refuse to be stopped. They have already reregistered the organization under a new name in Europe. And in late March, the group helped organize an antigovernment protest in Nizhny Novgorod that was violently suppressed by the police. Several hundred people marched; police attacked the protestors with sticks, knocking down several elderly pensioners. Police also rounded up Russian and foreign journalists, including a photographer for The New York Times.