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Tuesday 8 October 2019

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Lab technicians work at Russia's national drug-testing laboratory in Moscow. (file photo)

Moscow has some explaining to do -- and fast -- regarding why positive drug-test results were missing from a massive database that is key to an investigation into a doping scandal that has shut Russia out of international sporting competitions.

And, as the October 9 deadline to respond to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) approaches, officials tasked with cleaning up Russian athletics are slinging mud and preparing for the worst -- including a potential ban from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and future Games.

"Every day, the avalanche of lies grows, behind which they are trying to hide the true reasons for the failure of the anti-doping campaign," Yury Ganus, director-general of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), wrote on October 8 in an open letter blasting alleged media efforts to paint his entity as responsible for the missing data.

That letter followed another earlier in the week in which he said his agency had been "betrayed" and was "no longer on the edge of the abyss, we are flying into the abyss."

In response to questions from RFE/RL, RUSADA Deputy Director Margarita Pakhnotskaya said that in his betrayal remark Ganus was referring to the prospect that even after "being entirely compliant with the WADA Code RUSADA could lose its status because of the actions of third parties."

The controversy erupted following WADA's announcement in September that it was giving Russia three weeks to explain "inconsistencies" in data received from the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory -- the same lab responsible for blood tests of Russian athletes who participated in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and other events, and which featured prominently in WADA's determination in 2016 that Russia operated a state-sponsored doping program.

As a result, Russian athletes were barred from competing under the Russian flag at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and other international events, and RUSADA -- one of multiple Russian state entities accused in the cover-up -- was suspended.

Data Discrepancies

In a decision seen as controversial at the time, WADA reinstated RUSADA as compliant in September 2018, contingent on the delivery of the database from the Moscow lab by the end of December 2018 so that it could further investigations into individual doping cases by Russian athletes.

That deadline was not met, despite direct appeals to Russian President Vladimir Putin by RUSADA head Ganus. Eventually a solution was found, and in mid-January WADA announced that it had successfully retrieved the data, which it described as "crucial to build strong cases against cheats and exonerate other athletes."

The data taken from the lab's servers, computers, and other equipment was taken out of Russia for detailed analysis and authentication, and "another step forward" was recorded when WADA retrieved more than 2,200 blood samples from the lab in April.

But the success story began to unravel when WADA announced that it was opening a formal compliance procedure against Russia after investigators discovered discrepancies in the data obtained from the Moscow laboratory compared to a copy of the database obtained from a whistle-blower in October 2017.

The announcement scuttled hopes that Russia's ban from competition could be lifted in time for the World Athletics Championships in Doha, and came just days after the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) had announced plans for Team Russia to compete at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

Responding to the news of WADA's inquiry, ROC President Stanislav Pozdnyakov said on September 23 that "the situation is very serious."

"Numerous diplomatic efforts have been made to regain the trust of the international sports community so as to ensure that Russian athletes have the right to compete at Olympic events without any restrictions," he added. "But now again we run the risk of facing possible sanctions based on reasons and developments we have nothing to do with."

"I hope that our colleagues who are authorized to deal with this problem can quickly sort out the issues on the basis of which questions were raised by WADA and give convincing answers," Pozdnyakov said.

'Propaganda Machine'

In his October 8 letter, published just a day before WADA's deadline for answers, Ganus lashed out at what he said were attempts in Russian media to place responsibility for the data on RUSADA even though it rests with the Sports Ministry.

His agency, Ganus said, "did not and does not have access to the database of the Moscow laboratory."

What he called the media "propaganda machine" working in Russia to deflect scrutiny into the apparent database tampering, he added, "has not led to a way out of the crisis, but has driven it into an even more hopeless condition."

Yury Ganus, director-general of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (file photo)
Yury Ganus, director-general of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (file photo)

That condition, Ganus told the Kremlin-friendly daily Izvestia in an interview published on October 7, is "critical."

Citing comments made to the BBC in September by WADA compliance review committee chairman Jonathan Taylor, Ganus noted that the anti-doping body does not believe the data went missing by accident, and thus it cannot be explained away as the result of "a voltage drop or lightning strike."

A more convincing argument, he said, is required in order to avoid the worst outcome, which he described as banning Russia "from the next two Olympics -- summer 2020 in Tokyo and winter 2022 in Beijing."

James Fitzgerald, WADA's senior manager for media relations and communications, told RFE/RL in written comments on October 7 that "talking about sanctions at this stage is a little premature."

Once the Russian response is received and analyzed by the relevant authorities at WADA, they and independent forensic experts will report their findings to the compliance review committee, which in turn is in a position to provide its formal recommendations on what to do to WADA's executive committee.

"No fixed timeline can be set for this, as due process must be respected, but WADA is pursuing the matter robustly and as quickly as practicable," Fitzgerald said.

He also expressed confidence that the decision to reinstate RUSADA has proven "to be the right one for the good of athletes and clean sport."

The decision "broke a longstanding impasse with the Russian authorities and it is now yielding real and significant results," he said, noting that "it gave us access to the Moscow Laboratory data and samples that are now being used to bring cheats to justice."

Azerbaijani Police Block Sanctioned Rally
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Azerbaijani police detained several people in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, during a protest on October 8 in support of freedom of assembly organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces -- (NCDF) -- an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition forces.

A group of opposition activists gathered in front of the mayor’s office in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, in protest of what they say is the city’s refusal to allow a rally in a centrally located stadium.

The city administration had green-lighted the NCDF demonstration on condition that no more than 50 people would attend.

The NCDF members called the rally to protest a decision by city officials to deny permission for them to stage a demonstration at the Mahsul Stadium in central Baku, offering them instead the right to protest in Lokbatan, a small city outside the capital.

Some 50 opposition activists were allowed to the venue of the protest at 3 p.m. local time.

Several dozen more protesters who were barred from entering the venue tried to break through the police cordon but were dispersed and some of them were detained.

News media were also not allowed to cover the event.

Baku police said that 17 protesters were reprimanded for violating the "mass demonstrations law," and "administrative protocols" were drawn up against four protesters for the same reason. Five people will "be sent to the court," the police said in a statement.

Unconfirmed reports said that about 30 people had been detained by police during the rally.

Photos from the scene show police in riot gear and crowds holding signs in front of government buildings.

The NCDF denied that any members of its group had broken the law and said that acts of violence had been committed against many of those looking to peacefully protest.

It said another protest has been scheduled for October 19.

A few people in the group did not appear to be with the protesters, with some holding signs reading “[President] Ilham Aliyev, we are with you.”

Aliyev has ruled the South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father's death in 2003. He has previously often shrugged off criticism in the past.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service,Turan, and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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