Stifling Dissent? Some Say Russia Pressures Aid Groups

Oksana Chelysheva stood outside the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow trying to look cheery in the blustery late January cold. Just moments before, the court had ruled the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a nongovernmental organization that Chelysheva leads, a terrorist organization.

The ruling, said Chelysheva, is part of a steady campaign by the Kremlin to erode human rights in Russia. It coincided with the one-year anniversary of a new law to limit the ability of nongovernmental organizations, or NFOs, to receive foreign funding and operate independently.

According to Amnesty International, which opposes the ruling, the RCFS, which used to monitor the human rights situation in Chechnya, was closed down last October largely due to the new anti-extremism and NGO laws that made it illegal for an organization to be headed by a person convicted of "extremist" activities.

The executive director of the RCFS, Stanislav Dmitrievskii, had been convicted on Feb. 3, 2006, on "race hate" charges for publishing nonviolent articles by Chechen separatist leaders. He was, said Amnesty International, convicted for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and should not have faced trial in the first place.

"It's evident that a very dangerous precedent has been set right now for other human rights organizations in Russia," Chelysheva said. "It's a warning for all the other NGOs. And it's a warning for Europe and the free world in general, because it's clear that, after this complete neglect for all the support we have obtained from public figures from all the continents, it doesn't matter."

Based in the provincial town of Nizhny Novgorod, where famed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov spent years in exile, the RCFC is a small operation of fewer than 15 people, 10 of whom who work out of Chechnya.

But the organization has a large impact, monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya and channeling daily news and information out of the war-shattered province. It is the only organization of its kind and, because of its sensitive work, it has attracted the particular ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chelysheva, who runs the organization along with Dmitrievskii, said part of the reason the organization has been outlawed is its focus on Chechnya.

With a mandatory draft still in place, the war in Chechnya remains a highly contentious issue for Russians, and one with particular resonance.

The military is notorious for dedovschina, or extreme hazing and torture. Last year, 16 soldiers were officially listed as killed in hazing incidents and 276 others committed suicide.

The RCFS doesn't just limit its work to providing news out of Chechnya. It also works to help torture survivors.

One woman, a former psychologist in Chechnya who refused to give her name out of fear of further persecution, said the society saved her life.

"I was tortured with electric shock," she said. "They hanged me. They used different kinds of torture. They beat me up severely. If they cease to exist, we will become absolutely helpless and unprotected."

The fate of Russia's estimated 450,000 NGOs remains uncertain. According to the new law, all are required to follow the dictates of a new government agency staffed by intelligence and security agents.

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