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EU WITNESSES "CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT" AGAINST DISSIDENTS

The European Union (EU) glimpsed first hand President Vladimir Putin's human rights crisis at an EU-Russia summit last week in the south of Russia when anti-Kremlin protesters were prevented from attending a rally near the summit site. IFEX members have been reporting for some time on Russia's crackdown on dissent, especially around the roaming "Marches of Dissent" across the nation.

According to "The Times" (of London), the former chess champion Garry Kasparov was among opposition leaders barred by police from flying to a March of Dissent in Samara, close to the site of the summit. The action was the latest crackdown in what human rights groups call Putin's "campaign of harassment" against march organisers, and prompted criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to news reports.

"I'm concerned about some people having problems in travelling here. I hope they will be given an opportunity to express their opinion," Merkel said at a post-summit news conference.

Putin dismissed the protesters who had planned to join the March of Dissent in Samara as "marginal groups" and claimed that other EU countries also made "preventative arrests."

According to news reports, Kasparov was among 27 people, including foreign journalists, detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport by police. They were held for five hours and had their passports taken away from them until the last available flight to Samara had left. A police official at the airport said Kasparov and his companions could not be issued with tickets because of a "computer glitch."

Kasparov is one of the leaders of "The Other Russia" coalition, made up of Kremlin opponents from across the political spectrum who say that Putin has trampled on democratic freedoms and created a police state. The Samara protest was the latest in the coalition's series of "Marches of Dissent" held earlier this year in St. Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod and Moscow, aimed at stirring support for an anti-Putin candidate in next year's presidential elections. Local authorities in each city had banned, severely restricted or violently cracked down on previous protests, but the Samara march had been sanctioned to avoid EU criticism at the summit.

Despite the apparent compromise, authorities harassed the march's organisers, as well as activists, journalists and monitors in the run-up to the protest, report Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres, RSF) and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES). The rights groups say that three journalists working for the daily "Kommersant" and REN-TV were arrested on 10 May while interviewing one of the march's organisers outside his apartment building, and interrogated for more than two hours about The Other Russia's protest plans.

The next day, according to the IFEX members, police raided the offices of the newspaper "Novaya Gazeta" twice in Samara and seized all of their computers, on the grounds that they needed to be checked for unlicensed software. CJES says the paper was forced to suspend publication.

Human Rights Watch reports that on 14 May, police briefly detained two representatives of the Moscow Helsinki Group as they arrived at the Samara train station - officers said they allegedly matched the descriptions of wanted criminals. Two of the march's organisers were detained with the same explanation the following day.

Between 200 and 300 demonstrators eventually staged the March of Dissent in Samara, watched by a heavy police presence, say local news reports. Meanwhile, not a single agreement was signed at the summit, which failed to meet expectations to better relations between the EU and Russia.

In a separate development, the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) was served with an eviction notice on 15 May, only two days before it was asked to vacate its Moscow offices, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and CJES. The 90-year-old organisation with more than 100,000 members has been busily preparing for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)'s 26th World Congress of Journalists happening in Moscow from 28 May to 1 June. According to CPJ, RUJ's premises are to be given to Russia Today, a state-run, English-language satellite television channel aimed at enhancing Russia's image abroad.

RUJ issued a statement accusing the authorities of taking steps to do away with the union, due to its "consistent and uncompromising defence of the interests of the professional community and the constitutional rights and liberties of Russian citizens."

CJES is also headquartered in the building occupied by the RUJ.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/2cfabg
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=22158
- CJES: http://www.cjes.ru/bulletin/?bulletin_id=2471&lang=eng
- The Other Russia: http://www.theotherrussia.org/
- "The Times", "Kasparov checked as EU and Russia clash at summit": http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1809576.ece
- CJES on RUJ eviction: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/83431/
- CPJ on RUJ eviction: http://tinyurl.com/23d7re
- RUJ: http://inter.ruj.ru/
- IFJ Congress: http://tinyurl.com/yqtzss
(Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

(22 May 2007)

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