Russian human rights activists in Brussels yesterday (15 May) called on the EU to stand up for its values, as they feared that those principles were quickly eroding.
The EU office of Amnesty International hosted four Russia right activists – Alexander Cherkasov, Valentina Cherevatenko, Kirill Koroteev and Nadezhda Kutepova – who told the press about the plight of NGOs categorised as “foreign agents” by the country’s authorities.
A law which considers NGOs as “foreign agents” for receiving financial, technical, consulting or other help from abroad, was met with a storm of criticism from rights activists in Russia and abroad.
Nadezhda Kutepova, lawyer and human rights activist for NGO Planeta Nadezhd (Planet of Hopes), defends the rights, of victims of the nuclear waste disaster in the city of Ozyorsk, also known as Cheliabinsk-40. In 1957 an explosion heavily polluted the city and surrounding area with radioactive materials exposing hundreds of thousands to radiation. The nuclear accident was considered a state secret.
After fighting for justice for the victims Kutepova was harassed, persecuted and subjected to a smear campaign, then forced to flee to France where she obtained political asylum. Her organisation Planet of Hopes continues to operate from Ozyorsk.
Kutepova said that she was forced to leave her country, fearing a 30-year prison sentence for espionage. The case of ‘Planet of Hopes’ was now in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, she said.
Both organisations founded by Cherevatenko, the Women of the Don Union and the Women of the Don Foundation, operating in the North Causcasus, were declared ‘foreign agents’ under the ‘foreign agents law’. One of them – the Women of the Don Union was later taken off the list. She faces up to two years in prison for alleged violation of the “foreign agents” law.
Cherevatenko said that by inflicting heavy fines the authorities were seeking the closuer of her organisation.
Alexander Cherkasov from the Moscow-based Human Rights Centre ‘Memorial’ said that one of the methods of harassment was the number of photocopies the investigative authorities took from their files. He mentioned 31.500 photocopies on the last occasion, jokingly adding that at least he hoped companies like Xerox could profit from it. The authorities were very skilled at creating conditions under which it is impossible for the NGOs to work, he said.
Kirill Koroteev, Legal Director of ‘Memorial’, which one of the oldest and most respected Russian human rights organizations, said that the authorities considered as “political activity” any piece of text published on a website, and that keeping a book by Boris Nemtsov in their office was also considered “political activity” in legal terms.
He too denounced the administrative burdens and “shrinking space for civil societies”.
The four activists are due to meet in Brussels with EU officials.
Asked what they expected from the EU as help, Cherkasov said the EU should strongly stand for its values and not hesitate to act against Hungary, Poland or Slovakia in cases of breaches of the rule of law and of the moral principles of the Union.
Kutepova said that the influence of the Russian Federation in the EU countries was becoming stronger, and that many circles in various member countries supported Vladimir Putin, weakening the common positions of the RU.
EU ministers will discuss today (16 May) for the first time ever threats of the rule of law in a member state – Poland. Unfortunately, much is not expected from the meeting.
Kutepova also said the Russian diaspora in the EU countries was heavily controlled by the Russian embassies. “Russians abroad are undefended”, she said.
Amnesty International announced the launch today (16 May) of its new global ‘Brave’ campaign, to stop the wave of attacks and smear campaigns against those defending human rights across the world. The campaign will last two years.