Accessibility links

Breaking News

Watchdog

"We don't cooperate with [the Czech NGO]. We don't have any ties to it. But if we continue working in our previous way, it will create enormous risks for members of our team as well as for journalists and people who cite our information," a member of the group said.

MOSCOW -- Just one month shy of its seventh birthday, the prominent legal-aid nongovernmental organization Komanda 29 has ceased its activities following a long pressure campaign against it by the Russian authorities.

The authorities on July 16 blocked the Komanda 29 website because of the organization's purported connections with a Czech NGO called Spolecnost Svobody Informace, which has been designated an "undesirable" organization in Russia.

Under the controversial law on "undesirable" organizations, any Russian individual or organization that "cooperates" with a designated group risks potentially severe administrative or criminal penalties.

"Under these circumstances, the continued work of Komanda 29 creates a clear and direct threat to the security of a large number of people, and we cannot ignore that risk," the group said in a social-media post announcing its shutdown.

Yevgeny Smirnov
Yevgeny Smirnov

"The authorities' logic is clear although we, of course, don't agree with it," Komanda 29 lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov told RFE/RL. "We don't cooperate with [the Czech NGO]. We don't have any ties to it. But if we continue working in our previous way, it will create enormous risks for members of our team as well as for journalists and people who cite our information."

Smirnov's colleague, Komanda 29 lawyer Yevgeny Olenichev, said the latest moves against the group "made it simply too dangerous to keep working as before."

The pressure campaign against Komanda 29 made headlines in April, when the group's founder and leader, defense attorney Ivan Pavlov, was arrested and charged with revealing state secrets. Since then he has been under house arrest and barred from using the Internet or communicating with journalists.

"This is one general attack against us all," Smirnov said. "And this attack did not begin on April 30 when Ivan was detained. It began last year, when they tried to disbar our lawyers. It is a planned assault on many fronts that continues to the present. We are making public whatever we can make public. But there is other information that we cannot talk about because of the need to protect our clients."

'A Bone In The Throat' Of The FSB

Komanda 29 was a group of young St. Petersburg-based lawyers that specialized in open-government cases. According to Olenichev, the group was handling about 25 cases when it closed, including several involving alleged high treason and espionage. The group was defending Karina Tsurkan, who was convicted last year of spying for Moldova, and former journalist Ivan Safronov, who faces charges of revealing secrets about Russian arms sales to the Czech Republic.

Komanda 29 has also been involved in several cases aimed at gaining access to Federal Security Service (FSB) archives containing information about political repressions and other crimes of the Soviet state during the 1930s and 1940s.

When Pavlov was arrested in April, lawyer Irina Biryukova said that "he has been like a bone in the throat of the security agencies."

Maksim Olenichev
Maksim Olenichev

Olenichev says there are many reasons why the FSB has targeted Komanda 29, including its representation of the now-banned organizations of opposition political leader Aleksei Navalny and its efforts to gain access to the closed FSB archives.

"In many areas we have had good results that attracted the attention of the authorities," he said, adding that the government was also "cleaning up the entire civic sector" in preparation for the September elections to the State Duma.

Smirnov added that the Komanda 29 lawyers will continue to work individually but the group will lose the "collaboration that enables us to more effectively do the work we were doing individually."

"Journalists and lawyers who work in political matters get better results by working together than by working alone," he said. "That, apparently, was a goal of the attack -- to make it so we would not be as effective and so we would be less noticeable and less of an obstacle to our opponents."

Lawyers Maksim Olenichev (from left), Yevgeny Smirnov, Ilya Novikov, Ivan Pavlov, Vladimir Voronin, and Valeria Vetoshkina speak with the media near the Moscow City Court on June 9 during the case against Navalny's organization.
Lawyers Maksim Olenichev (from left), Yevgeny Smirnov, Ilya Novikov, Ivan Pavlov, Vladimir Voronin, and Valeria Vetoshkina speak with the media near the Moscow City Court on June 9 during the case against Navalny's organization.

Lev Shlosberg, a local lawmaker in Pskov and head of the Pskov regional branch of the Yabloko party, wrote on Facebook that the government was attacking the very notion that Russians have rights and freedoms that can be defended.

"The authorities want to show everyone that they have no rights and are defenseless," he wrote, "that there are no inherent human rights and freedoms in Russia. Only unlimited violence and impunity."

The government is "destroying everything that has been done by people without its involvement," Kirill Martynov, political editor at the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, wrote on Facebook. "Here in Russia everyone who is doing something that is dear to them has gotten used to the routine: get knocked down by the state, get back up, move forward."

Journalist Maria Eismont noted that Komanda 29's closure came at the same time that the government named the Institute of Law and Public Policy, another legal-aid NGO that brings Russian citizens' cases to the European Court of Human Rights, a so-called "foreign agent."

"It would be hard to find a more patriotic activity than helping Russian citizens fight for their rights against those who are much more powerful," she wrote on Facebook. "There is no doubt that such organizations are not only ‘desirable,' but essential for any society that is thinking about its future."

Political analyst Aleksandr Shmelev called the law on "undesirable" organizations "absolutely fascist and so blatantly illegal that it stands out sharply against the background of all our other illegal, fascist laws."

"I am almost certain that this law will be used more and more frequently in the coming years and everyone imaginable will be deemed 'undesirable,'" he wrote on Facebook. "After all, it is simply so convenient!"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Russia by Svetlana Prokopyeva and Anna Yarovaya of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
'It's Safe Here': Belarusians Adjust To Exile In Latvia
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:18 0:00

Belarusian authorities have raided the headquarters of an independent newspaper and taken into custody three of its journalists as part of a continuing crackdown on media outlets and civil society activists.

Alyaksandr Mantsevich, the editor of the Regionalnaya gazeta (Regional Newspaper), and journalists Zoya Khrutskaya and Nasta Utkina were detained on July 19, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) said.

The three were detained after a search of the newspaper's office in Maladzyechna, 80 kilometers northeast of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Belarus has been mired in turmoil since the disputed presidential election that gave authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka his sixth consecutive term in power.

The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the 66-year-old, some of his family members, other senior officials, and on key economic sectors.

Lukashenka has since put down street protests and dissent over the vote with sometimes lethal force, jailing thousands of people and forcing most opposition leaders who haven't been imprisoned to leave the country.

In recent weeks, authorities have focused on independent media outlets and journalists.

As many as 64 searches have been conducted over the last 10 days, the BAZh said in a statement, adding that the number of journalists who are now in custody had risen to 32. They are either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.

"The authorities have turned life into hell for independent journalists in Belarus with a conveyor belt of searches and arrests," BAZh head Andrey Bastunets said. "There is an impression that the authorities have decided to leave the country without journalists."

Earlier on July 19, the authorities froze the bank accounts of two civil rights groups without explanation.

Officials from the Belarusian PEN Club and the charitable organization Imena (Names) said they were informed of the move on July 19, without being given a reason explaining the decision.

The PEN Club, led by writer Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Prize laureate and member of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition, said on Telegram that the organization's account had been frozen by the Investigative Committee in a decision made on July 13.

The Coordination Council is a body set up by the political opposition in Belarus last year to facilitate the transfer of power in the country following a presidential election in August 2020 that the opposition says was rigged and the West has refused to accept.

The same day, Imena founder Katsyaryna Sinyuk said her group's bank account was frozen by the Investigative Committee as of July 14.

Sinyuk's group was among at least 19 NGOs and media organizations raided by police on July 14, after which at least a dozen people were detained.

In a related development, a court in Minsk on July 19 also handed out prison sentences ranging from five to nine years to 11 people who were accused of coordinating "radical actions" and planning arson on a messaging app.

The Vyasna human rights center recognized the 11 people convicted on July 19 as political prisoners, saying there are a total of 562 in the country now.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 2020 election considered fraudulent.

Belarus has been mired in turmoil since the disputed presidential election that gave authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka his sixth consecutive term in power.

Lukashenka has since put down street protests and dissent over the vote with sometimes lethal force, jailing thousands of people and forcing most opposition leaders who haven't been imprisoned to leave the country.

The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the 66-year-old, some of his family members, other senior officials, and on key economic sectors.

The EU recently imposed further far-reaching penalties aimed at weakening the regime after the forced landing of a European passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of an opposition blogger who was on board.

In April, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey publicly warned that further Western sanctions against Lukashenka's government would be met by a crackdown on the country's civil society.

"Any further toughening of the sanctions will lead to the situation where the civil society [in Belarus] of which they [in the West] care, will stop functioning. And that will be, I believe, absolutely grounded in the current situation," Makey said at the time.

Load more

About This Blog

"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.

Subscribe

Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More

XS
SM
MD
LG