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Helsinki Federation Shuts Down After Fraud Scandal

(Courtesy Photo) In mid-November, members and supporters of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) converged on the Finnish capital to mark the group's 25th anniversary.

The gathering, however, was no occasion for celebration. The Vienna-based headquarters of the human rights movement announced its likely closure over a massive fraud scandal in which the IHF's former finance manager confessed to having embezzled some 1.2 million euros ($1.76 million) from its budget.

The offense was uncovered in September after going undetected for several years. The case goes to trial in January.

"The executive committee and a number of other supporters of the organization did everything they could to try and find a solution that would allow the IHF to continue its work," says Holly Cartner, who works for Human Rights Watch and served on IHF's executive committee. "But unfortunately, we were not able to find sufficient resources to pay for the debt, and as a result the IHF decided to declare bankruptcy."

The group's treasurer, president, vice president, and executive committee all immediately handed in their resignations over the scandal. The IHF shut down its office earlier this month, sealing the demise of one of the world's best-known rights watchdogs, which in recent years has focused much of its energy on documenting rights abuses in Belarus, Central Asia, and the North Caucasus.

A Blow To Rights Groups

The closure deals a severe blow to civil society in some of the countries where the group has sister committees. Individual Helsinki committees operate in 46 countries, many from the former Soviet bloc. Since national Helsinki committees are technically independent legal entities, they are not directly threatened by the IHF collapse. The Vienna headquarters, however, were vital in lobbying for some of the smaller and more vulnerable national Helsinki committees.

"Clearly, it's a devastating loss to the human rights movement in the region," says Cartner. "It will have a negative impact on the ability of these organizations to function as a network and to be something more than what they are in their individual capacities -- it being able to influence European foreign policy toward Central Asia or Russia, for example."

There's also concern that authorities in Russia and Central Asia may take advantage of the scandal to intensify their ongoing crackdown on local Helsinki committees and other nongovernmental organizations.

But for now, the Moscow Helsinki Group remains optimistic.

"This doesn't affect us at all, since we are not branches of this federation," says Moscow office head Lyudmilla Alekseyeva. "We are all independent organizations. [The Vienna office] was not responsible for coordinating our work, they worked with us on joint projects and ensured that groups from various countries helped our organizations that ran in trouble like in Kosovo, and now in Belarus."

Even in Belarus, where it has come under consistent state pressure, the group is not hitting the panic button. The local Helsinki Committee told a press conference today that the IHF's closure will not affect activities in Belarus.

It may take time, however, before the Helsinki movement is able to mend its dented reputation.

To add to the embattled watchdog's trouble, the Vienna headquarters last month expelled the Moldovan Helsinki committee over apparently unrelated financial mismanagement.

(RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova and Belarus services contributed to this report.)