Russian Court Backs Closing Of Chechen Rights Group

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MOSCOW, Jan. 23 -- The Russian Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that shut down the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a Western-funded grass-roots organization that had challenged the Kremlin's interpretation of events in the continuing conflict in Chechnya.

The society's leadership called the decision a chilling example of the government using a recently enacted law on nongovernmental organizations to quash activism that clashes with official policy. The society, which had a network of correspondents and activists in Chechnya, a republic in southern Russia, reported on rights abuses by Russian forces and their Chechen allies.

Oksana Chelysheva, one of the group's leaders, promised to fight the ruling. "We are going to take our case to the European Court of Human Rights and, possibly, our Constitutional Court."

Last February, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, co-chair of the society, was convicted of inciting racial hatred for publishing in a society newsletter a statement by Aslan Maskhadov, a Chechen separatist leader, calling for negotiations to end the Chechen conflict. Another published statement cited by prosecutors was a commentary critical of the Kremlin by the London-based Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev.

Maskhadov -- who officials here say played a role in the 2004 Beslan school massacre in southern Russia that left 331 people dead, including 186 children -- was killed by Russian forces in March 2005. After that, the society, in its monthly newsletter Human Rights Defender, ran a portrait of the separatist with a black mourning border, a decision that infuriated Russian officials and raised eyebrows among other Russian human rights activists.

Dmitrievsky was given a two-year suspended sentence by a court in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, where the society was based.

The law on nongovernmental organizations, signed by President Vladimir Putin in January 2006, makes it illegal for grass-roots groups to have people convicted of extremism as leaders or members.

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was later prosecuted for failing to remove Dmitrievsky from its board and membership roll. Moreover, the society was supposed to publicly denounce Dmitrievsky within five days of his conviction, which it refused to do.

The judicial assault on the group has drawn protests from Western Europe and the United States. A group of Western politicians and intellectuals wrote an open letter to Putin this month asking him to allow the group to continue to work.

"Neither the act of printing statements by separatist leaders, nor the content of the statements themselves, would be considered extremist in most Western countries, no matter how unpopular the cause involved," said the letter, which was signed by members of the European Parliament, among others.

"Moreover the flood of genuinely extremist material that appears almost daily in the Russian media, which has gone without comment from the Russian prosecutor's office, makes it clear that the law is being selectively applied in order to silence the society."

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was almost entirely underwritten by the European Union, the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Chelysheva said her group would try to work in Russia in another form.

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