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Russia: Detained activist transferred to house arrest

Russian authorities have transferred an activist in the southern city of Krasnodar to house arrest but should drop the politically motivated charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Mikhail Savva, a civic activist and academic who had been jailed since April 2013 before his transfer on December 4, is on trial for fraud.

Savva told the court and his lawyer that the authorities have threatened to bring treason charges against him, an indication that the fraud case against him is politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said.

“From the very beginning, it was evident that the case against Mikhail Savva was political,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “With new details about treason allegations, it seems clear that the sole purpose of the fraud charges is to intimidate Savva, his family, and supporters.”

Savva, 49, is grant programs director of the Southern Regional Resource Center, based in Krasnodar, 1,300 kilometers south of Moscow. The center helps and promotes the development of smaller nongovernmental organizations in southern Russian regions.

The Federal Security Service (FSB), which was in charge of the fraud investigation, also threatened to bring criminal charges against four of Savva's colleagues. An unidentified person threatened Savva's wife.

Savva is on trial in Krasnodar's Pervomaiski District Court on two counts of fraud, grounded in allegations that he embezzled 366,000 rubles (US$10,500) of government budget funds earmarked as a grant for a program he had led, and that he was paid for teaching a university course that he did not teach.

In his opening statement on November 5, Savva told the court that the FSB was using his arrest to falsify a treason case against him. Savva said FSB investigators, in questioning him, made reference to grants he had received over the years from foreign groups and meetings with United States embassy officials and foreign journalists, among other things.

On November 6, Savva told the court that on the evening of November 5, FSB investigators tried to coerce him into retracting his earlier statement, threatening to press treason and additional false charges against him and other people, including unnamed activists with independent groups in Krasnodar.

In a December 2 communication with his lawyer, Savva said that from mid-June to mid-July, and again starting in mid-August, the FSB interrogated him several times weekly without his lawyer present. He said that during these interrogations the FSB accused him of cooperating with the US Central Intelligence Agency and intimated that he was coordinating a network of nongovernmental organizations in the North Caucasus that are “hostile to Russia.”

Savva said he denied all the allegations. When he asked investigators the basis for their allegations, they said he was “meeting with foreigners too frequently and that could not be coincidental.”

He also said investigators tried to make him to confess to treason and fraud, and to provide false testimony against others.

In 2012, the Russian parliament amended several laws that potentially tar as “traitors” civic activists who collaborate with foreigners. The “foreign agents” law requires advocacy groups that receive foreign funding to register and publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The new treason law defines treason as “any assistance to a foreign state or organization or their representatives… to the detriment of Russia's external security.”

The new treason law expanded the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Security officials seem determined to make Savva the face of the new 'enemy' – an activist who meets regularly with foreigners,” Denber said. “This can only have a chilling effect on the work of other activists.”

Savva was arrested on April 12, several days before he was scheduled to travel to Moscow to address the Presidential Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights regarding the crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

One of the two fraud counts stems from government funding that the Southern Regional Resource Center received for a public survey about local attitudes toward migrants, which the center contracted out to a local social research firm. The prosecution contends that the survey was in fact carried out by another social research firm not mentioned in any contract, and that Savva and Viktoria Remmler, the director of the first research firm, benefitted from the difference between the service fees cited in the contract with Remmler's firm and the lower cost of the firm that carried out the survey, of which Remmler was also the director.

The prosecutor and regional authorities recognized that the survey and research project were carried out satisfactorily and on deadline.

The case raised additional fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Remmler, who was charged with fraud together with Savva, provided the key testimony against Savva for this fraud count. On April 12, the day Savva was arrested, FSB personnel detained and questioned her for the entire day, after which she confessed to the charges and signed testimony implicating Savva. According to court documents, she had a lawyer appointed by the investigation. She was given a five-year suspended sentence and did not testify at Savva's trial.

Also on April 12, the FSB detained Elena Shablo, an employee of another nongovernment group that works with the Southern Regional Resource Center, for an entire day of questioning without allowing her to notify her family about her whereabouts.

The second fraud count stems from allegations that Savva received 70,000 rubles (US$2,200) for a course that he did not teach at Kuban State University, where he is on the faculty. Savva told the court that the payment was part of an arrangement with another faculty member and that the department chief knew about the arrangement.

The second fraud case also raised fairness questions, Human Rights Watch said. The prosecution entered a document that Savva and the other faculty member said was forged, but the judge on five separate occasions refused a petition to submit it for expert handwriting analysis.

At least three prosecution witnesses gave testimony in court that contradicted statements they made to investigators that was unfavorable to the defendant. When the prosecution asked about these contradictions, each witness stated separately that the FSB investigators had either presented them with statements to sign, or told them what to write. They did not say whether they were coerced to do so.

In April investigators initiated fraud investigations against two of Savva's colleagues at the Southern Regional Resource Center, the head of his department at Kuban State University, and the lecturer who taught Savva's course. The cases were eventually closed.

Savva's wife, Elena, told Human Rights Watch that in May she received anonymous, online threats warning her that she too could be arrested for accepting bribes in her capacity as a university professor. The person making the threats revealed information about the second fraud count even before Savva's lawyer had been informed of it, suggesting insider knowledge. Elena Savva filed a complaint with district prosecution office about the threats, but she told Human Rights Watch she was not aware of any investigation of the threats.

“Transferring Savva from jail to his home is good news, but the charges against him should be dropped altogether,” Denber said. “Each day this trial continues, more information becomes public that shows the political nature of this prosecution.”

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