By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 29, 2007
MOSCOW -- A Russian nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. government to train journalists and improve management at local television stations has been shuttered by a criminal investigation that critics charge is politically motivated.
Authorities targeted the Educated Media Foundation after its head was found with slightly more than $12,500 in undeclared currency at a Moscow airport, an offense that routinely would be settled with a fine, lawyers said.
Instead, Manana Aslamazyan, 55, is facing up to five years in prison on smuggling charges. Her organization, previously called Internews Russia, is accused of money laundering -- an allegation that Russian journalists and civic activists, as well as Western diplomats, dismissed as absurd.
The effective closure of the foundation, whose computers have been seized and bank accounts frozen, is the starkest example yet of the Russian government's hostility to Western-funded nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. The authorities accuse them of trying to foment the kind of political discontent that brought on street revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia has tightened registration and reporting requirements for the entire nongovernmental sector, with special restrictions on foreign-funded groups. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia will not tolerate interference in its internal affairs.
"Unfortunately, the situation in Russia for NGOs is not safe, and this case is just an excuse to provide a lesson to the entire community," said Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights group Agora, which provides legal consulting services to NGOs across Russia. "The message is that they can use the slightest mistake."
The mistake in this case occurred on Jan. 21 when Aslamazyan landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. In her purse she had 9,000 euros in an envelope as well as 550 euros and 5,000 rubles in her wallet.
Aslamazyan walked through the exit for arriving travelers who have nothing to declare. She was stopped by a customs officer. She said in an interview this week that she immediately realized she'd made a mistake and volunteered that she had cash that was the equivalent of $2,567 more than the allowed limit of $10,000, meaning that she should have declared all the cash. The 9,000 euros, she said, was a personal loan from a friend in Paris, where she had just visited.
"I was not hiding anything. It was just a mistake," Aslamazyan said in a telephone interview from Paris, where she fled as the criminal investigation here escalated. "I was sure I would be penalized, but I couldn't imagine that my mistake would have such consequences. My foundation was destroyed."
In most cases involving similar amounts of money, people have to appear before a justice of the peace and pay a fine, according to Boris Kuznetsov, Aslamazyan's attorney. "That's it. Case closed," said Kuznetsov, one of Russia's best-known criminal defense lawyers, who is representing Aslamazyan for a nominal fee. "This case was exceptional."
Kuznetsov said investigators ignored a general customs service directive that the severity of any charges for undeclared currency is determined by the amount of money involved over the legal limit. Investigators, he said, counted the $10,000 allowance as well as the $2,567 above the limit to press smuggling charges and elevate the offense above an administrative matter.
Aslamazyan's case, which normally would have been handled by the airport police department, was taken over by an investigative committee at the Interior Ministry.
"I am confident the organizers of this case are in the Lubyanka," said Kuznetsov, referring to the headquarters of the FSB, the internal security agency and successor of the KGB. "She was stopped at random, but someone heard Manana was detained and then the KGB decided, great, we'll take her."
The Interior Ministry said it had no immediate comment on the case.
On April 18, 20 officers from the Interior Ministry raided the offices of Educated Media. A month later, the group's bank accounts were frozen. Most of the 65 staff members have had to find new work.
The nonprofit organization has trained 15,000 Russian journalists since 1996, according to Aslamazyan.
"Her personal case has led the government to close Internews, and it's a catastrophe for regional journalism," said Marianna Maksimovskaya, host of "The Week" on the private Ren-TV channel, a show that has editorial independence.
According to Interior Ministry documents provided to The Washington Post, the investigation expanded to include suspected money laundering by the foundation.
"In order to reveal facts of legalizing (laundering) of money or other property obtained in a criminal way, financial and other accounting documents were taken from the offices," stated one report. "During the investigation it was revealed that the following money transfers by foreign organizations were made to the bank account of 'Educated Media' during the period of December 2006 to March 2007: 70,000 euros from Internews Europe Association (France) and $300,000 from Financial Service Center (USA). However, there is no data on spending those amounts."
Internews Europe is an organization affiliated with the Educated Media Foundation. The Financial Services Center is the U.S. State Department disbursing office that makes overseas payments for U.S. agencies with foreign operations, according to a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.
The $300,000 was a scheduled disbursement from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to U.S. officials and Aslamazyan.
Since 2004, USAID has given approximately $8 million to the Educated Media Foundation and its predecessor organization, Internews Russia. From 1998 to 2004, the United States provided almost $30 million to Internews U.S., some of which was sent to the organization's Russian arm.
The embassy spokeswoman said the U.S. government is satisfied that the grant money was spent properly. She noted that Educated Media, like all recipients of U.S. grants, is subject to annual independent audits and is required to submit regular financial and programmatic reporting.
"Internews has complied with all of these requirements and has had no material negative findings against them," the spokeswoman said.
The nonprofit organization has also received funding from the European Union, the Canadian government and private groups such as the Ford Foundation.
Aslamazyan's organization has "helped raise professional standards for journalism in Russia, not only in reporting news but also in encouraging coverage of issues important to citizens and civil society groups, such as tolerance, health issues, consumer rights, and other themes," the embassy spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement.
After the April raid on the group's office, more than 2,000 Russian journalists, including dozens from state or state-controlled stations, wrote an open letter to Putin asking him to intervene.
"We consider the actions of the law security bodies against Educated Media another step in the infringement of civil rights declared in the Russian constitution, of which you are the guarantor," the letter said. "Educated Media was never involved in any political activities. . . . Today many 'Internews' and 'Educated Media' graduates are the pride of Russian television.
"The reputation of Manana Aslamazyan in the Russian television community is unquestionable."
Putin did not reply.
Aslamazyan described the letter as the "most unexpected and most pleasant thing in this story. . . . When I think of the people who signed the letter," she said, "I feel I can survive."
Kuznetsov said he fears she will be put in jail pending trial if she returns, so for now she is remaining abroad.
"There are certain cases that are key cases," said Kuznetsov. "This case is a litmus test. It defines the condition of this society, the justice system, censorship, openness, freedom of speech, the basic values of a society and a democracy."