NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- When four security service officers arrived at the offices of a prominent human rights group here on Jan. 20, they demanded to see back issues of the group's monthly newspaper. Employees showed the officers to what passed for an archive, a pile of dusty papers on the floor.
The agents, from the FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB, gathered up copies to take away. They also seized records of the group, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, including the closely guarded names and addresses of people who write articles for the paper from the war-torn republic of Chechnya, according to Stanislav Dmitrievsky, co-chair of the organization.
Oksana Chelysheva and Stanislav Dmitrievsky of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society could face years in prison for allegedly inciting hatred.
(Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)
In a case that has frightened Russia's human rights activists, authorities say they are investigating whether the group incited hatred between national groups by publishing statements by Chechen separatist leaders in its newspaper. The organization's eight employees in this Volga River city, 250 miles east of Moscow, face up to four years in prison if they are ultimately brought to court and convicted.
Activists nationwide fear that the government, which insists the situation is normalizing in Chechnya, is determined to shut down alternative points of view on the conflict there, beginning with smaller, regional groups such as the friendship society.
"There is a de facto information blockade on Chechnya," said Tatiana Lokshina, program director at the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the country's best-known human rights organizations. "These are groups that undermine the blockade, and so they become dangerous, and the state is trying to get rid of them."
Many of the groups now feeling pressure from the government operate with foreign funding. The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society is entirely underwritten by the European Union, the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.
Another group, the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, which is funded by the E.U. and the NED, went on trial Wednesday in Ingushetia, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya, on charges of disseminating extremist information in its press releases.
Official hostility to Russia's emerging collection of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) found its most prominent expression in President Vladimir Putin's state of the nation address last year. "Far from all of them are geared towards defending people's real interests," Putin said. "For some of these organizations, the priority is rather different -- obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations. For others it is servicing dubious group and commercial interests."
Russian officials defend their probes, saying human rights groups have nothing to fear if they obey the law. "We think this material incites national hatred between Russian and Chechens," said Maxim Dudnik, an investigator at the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor's office. "I wouldn't say this case is politically motivated. Organizations have to follow the criminal code of the Russian federation; no one has yet canceled this code."
The Nizhny Novgorod group's alleged offense was to publish a March 2004 appeal to the European Parliament by Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist leader who was killed in Chechnya in March during an operation by Russian special forces. Maskhadov, who served briefly as president of Chechnya in the 1990s, asked the Parliament to recognize the conflict as "genocide," invoking its earlier declaration that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's forced deportation of Chechens during World War II was an act of genocide.
First published on a Chechen Web site, Maskhadov's appeal drew little attention from the news media. It was picked up by the BBC's monitoring service, two news agencies and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society's monthly newspaper, Pravo-Zashchita, or Human Rights Defender.
The European Parliament never acted on Maskhadov's rhetorically heated appeal, which coupled talk of peace with attacks on what he called the "criminal madness of the bloody Kremlin regime."
At first, the FSB said the article and another published statement by one of Maskhadov's deputies appeared to violate Russia's counterterrorism laws banning extremist material. That allegation was dropped, and now the group is being investigated for "inciting hatred between nationalities."
"Russians are entitled to the opinions of both sides in Chechnya," said Dmitrievsky, 39, whose group also runs humanitarian and educational programs. "But we don't publish calls for hatred between national groups."