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Despite prisoner amnesty, oppressive Russia escalating harassment of dissenters

The amnesty for imprisoned critics is long overdue but its significance is deeply diminished when those criticising Russia’s Olympic Games are pressured into silence – writes Jane Buchanan

The world’s attention has been captivated in recent days by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will pardon businessman Mikhail Khorodokovsky. This came a day after parliament adopted an amnesty that will free the two imprisoned Pussy Riot band members’ and charges were dropped against the Artic 30 Greenpeace activists, and a handful of anti-government protesters awaiting trial.
The release of these well-known victims in the government’s campaign to silence outspoken critics is very good news. At the same time, however, the authorities are escalating their harassment and intimidation of other activists and dissenting voices: namely those expressing criticism of the government’s preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Officials in and near Sochi have targeted journalists, environmental activists, minority rights activists, and others. Just this week, investigators and ‘anti-extremism’ authorities in Krasnodar Region, where Sochi is located, detained and questioned at least 11 activists for Circassian minority rights. Officials also conducted extensive searches of many of their homes and confiscated computers, phones, and other materials. All of the activists were released and none were charged. But they have been put on notice.

The pretext for this shakedown is the supposed search for a suspected terrorist, who is alleged to be hiding in each of these men’s homes. But no one is fooled. Many of the Circassian activists have long been critical of the Russian government’s decision to host the Olympic Games in Sochi. Many Circassian people and other ethnic minorities in the area assert that Sochi is part of their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.

At least one environmental activist was also subjected to intrusive, baseless searches of his home and dacha by ‘anti-extremism’ officials in May of this year. Other environmental activists are facing politically motivated charges that carry potential prison terms. One scientist and vocal critic of the Olympic preparations and other construction in Sochi, Suren Gazaryan, felt compelled to flee Russia or risk imprisonment.

Still others engaged in scientific research and publications on environmental problems related to the Sochi Olympics preparations have been under threat of having their offices shut and independence compromised by government interference their work. Authorities have also singled out some Sochi-based journalists and journalists visiting for intimidation and harassment. One local journalist has faced multiple spurious criminal and legal charges. Another quit after her editors repeatedly quashed her stories on evictions and environmental concerns, citing calls from local officials ‘forbidding’ publication of certain topics.

And, just last month, local authorities monitored and repeatedly detained and questioned over the course of three days two journalists from Norway’s TV2 – an Olympic broadcaster. Officials grilled the veteran reporter and cameraman about their plans and local contacts, asking them not to report on anything critical about the Olympic preparations.

The government has also made clear in several instances that Sochi residents concerned about impacts of Olympics preparations should refrain from voicing those concerns in public spaces. Residents of the Kudepsta region of Sochi repeatedly came out in their community to protest a proposed construction of a power plant in a residential area. And just this week, a court sentenced to 50 hours of community service the editor of a Sochi blog. The blogger had used social media networks to encourage residents to gather to express their upset at ongoing mass disruptions of electricity and water supply in many Sochi neighbourhoods as a result of Olympic construction. The protest he encouraged did not even happen.

The International Olympic Committee recently announced that the Russian government plans to set up ‘protest zones’ for people who want to demonstrate publicly during the Olympic Games in February. President Thomas Bach said the IOC welcomed the Russian decision to create the zones “so that everybody can express his or her opinion”. One zone has so far been designated, some 15 kilometers from the Olympic venues, well out of sight of the media and others.

If Bach genuinely believes that protest zones are a solution to Russia’s assaults on free speech, then he really doesn’t understand the nature of the problem. What the IOC can and should be doing is insisting that Russia fully meet its obligations as an Olympic host to ensure press freedom and end its campaign against its critics. The upcoming amnesty for imprisoned critics is long overdue but its significance is deeply diminished when those criticising Russia’s Olympic Games are pressured into silence.

Jane Buchanan is associate director for Europe and Central Asia at the Human Rights Watch campaign group. You can follow her on Twitter @JaneMBuchanan

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