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Activist critical of Russian NGO inspections held without bail

Authorities in Russia should free a civil society activist charged with misuse of government funds pending his trial, says Human Rights Watch. The investigation of Mikhail Savva, grant programs director of the Southern Regional Resource Center in the southern city of Krasnodar, has focused partially on his alleged foreign connections, raising concerns that the case is politically motivated.

Authorities in Krasnodar, approximately 1200 kilometers south of Moscow, detained Savva on April 12, 2013, on suspicion of fraud involving 366,000 rubles (US$10,500) of government budget funds earmarked as a grant for a program he had led.

In recent weeks Savva had been outspoken about the wave of government inspections in Krasnodar region, which were among the harshest in the recent inspection campaign of nongovernmental organizations. Savva was scheduled to address the Presidential Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on April 15 in Moscow on this issue.

“Throwing an activist in pretrial detention as he is raising concerns about the inspections of nongovernmental organizations raises a red flag about the motives for detaining him,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities' heightened interest in Savva's alleged foreign links also raises concerns about possible political motivations in the case.”

A local court, on April 13, ordered Savva to be held in pretrial custody for two months on the grounds that he would pressure witnesses and hinder the investigation, although the state did not provide specific facts to support this argument. Detaining Savva prior to trial, without specific factual grounds for denying him bail, is contrary to international standards, and he should be freed pending trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Savva's wife told Human Rights Watch that during the search of their house, on April 12, officers asked numerous questions about his connections with American organizations and confiscated photographs of Savva taken during trips abroad. They also asked about their daughter's English homework, noting the presence of “foreign words.”

A month before Savva's arrest, on March 14, the Federal Security Service (FSB) seized documents, computers and other items from the Southern Regional Resource Center and conducted operations to seize documents three other organizations with which the center collaborated. Savva wrote an article, posted on the Internet, that during the operation FSB officers questioned staff from one of the groups, the Levados Information Learning Center, and ordered them not to answer the phone. He also said that the FSB agents intimidated staff, threatening to charge them with document forgery, alleging that the organization's license for educational programs was a fake, and commenting that the center included foreigners in their educational programs.

On April 12 Savva was charged with fraud under article 159.2.3 of the Russian criminal code, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence. According to the charge sheet, the charges stem from funding for a public survey by a local marketing firm regarding local attitudes toward migrant workers. The survey was under the auspices of Building Peace, one of the Southern Regional Resource Center's programs.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Russia has ratified, states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”

The Human Right Committee, which provides authoritative interpretation of the covenant, has determined that bail should be granted except in cases in which there is a likelihood that the accused would abscond, destroy evidence, or influence witnesses. No such evidence was put forward against Savva.

The Southern Regional Resource Center is an umbrella organization that carries out education, conflict mediation, and other programs focusing on interethnic issues. Under Savva's leadership of its grants program, it has obtained numerous grants from foreign donors. On March 18, following the FSB visit, the resource center was inspected by a team of officials, including representatives of the prosecutor's office, the fire inspectorate, and the Justice Ministry, in line with the crackdown on foreign-funded organizations triggered by the 2012 “foreign agents” law.

The FSB searched the center again on April 9 and 16.

Radio Liberty reported that on April 9, the FSB detained Elena Shablo, head of the Levados Information Learning Center, for questioning at 7:30 a.m., and released her only at 5 p.m. without allowing her to notify her family about her whereabouts.

“It's bad enough that the Russian government is swooping down on nongovernmental organizations all over Russia, trying to intimidate them,” Williamson said. “But the arrest and detention of someone who was about to bring concerns to a federal human rights body suggests the situation is very dire.”

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