Rights Group: Russian Authorities Increase Assault on Free Speech

With just three weeks until the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian authorities have stepped up harassment of activists and journalists, according to a human rights group that has closely followed activities in the region.

Citing recent police activity including detained and jailed protestors, Human Rights Watch says intimidation of those outspoken against the Russian government has reached a fever pitch. In an interview with ABC News, Europe and Central Asia associate director Jane Buchanan said authorities are sending a signal that criticism of the Russian government is to be silenced.

"Just in recent weeks, we've seen a number of environmental activists being visited by the authorities, questioned about their environmental or other activities, about their plans during the Olympics, with a clear message that they need to be quiet, they need to be silent or face potentially worse repercussions," Buchanan said.

This week the Russian government has also faced scathing condemnation for banning an American journalist who has been critical of President Vladimir Putin's administration.

In an act unprecedented since the Cold War, journalist David Satter was expelled from Russia for five years. Satter says he was told by Russian officials his visa was denied because his presence in Russia was "undesireable." The Russian Foreign Ministry later stated Satter had breached visa rules.

Satter writes in today's Wall Street Journal that his expulsion is "an admission that the system under President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate free speech, even in the case of foreign journalists" and that "all evidence suggests that the action against me was a high priority for the Russian authorities."

Satter writes that he intends to continue reporting on Russia because "Russians need access to truthful information - which, given the censorship of Russian media, foreign sources are best able to provide."

Human Rights Watch reports that in just the past few weeks, activists and journalists have been stopped and questioned without reason by police. Among them was Natalia Kalinovskaya, an environmental activist who has been outspoken on construction for the Sochi games. HRW reports Russian authorities came to her parents' home and entered without a warrant, demanding to speak with her about "the Olympics in Sochi."

According to Human Rights Watch, police only left Kalinovskaya's home when she told them she would not be in Sochi during the Games.

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Russian authorities have chosen a "protest zone" for activists to demonstrate on issues including gay rights during the Olympics, located in a small village seven miles from any of the official Olympic venues. Protestors must have a special permit to demonstrate there.

"[The Russian government] has limited protests to a tiny obscure mountain village where people have to get multiple levels of permission in order to protest in a remote park, very far away from the games themselves so in that way it's clearly restricting people's ability to speak freely and peacefully assemble and protests," Buchanan told ABC News.

Authorities have said stepped-up security measures in and around Sochi have caused a greater police presence, but Buchanan says much of it is a smokescreen for continued harassment of citizens and journalists critical of the Olympics.

"What we've seen already happening is using security concerns as a pretext to crack down on activists, to restrict certain freedoms and in that way use security in an excessive and disproportionate way that infringes on human rights," she said.

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