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Civilized norms of the Middle Ages

16 April 2013

Mikhail Savva 

Source: Novaya gazeta

How the FSB in Krasnodar Territory simply sought to demonstrate how it could turn an NGO that had broken the law into its victim 

In the Middle Ages there was a rule in force that stated that a local prince, or prince elector (depending on where the event took place), could declare a person to be outside the law. So anything could be done to this person without fear of punishment. There is an impression that the spiral of time in Russia has come around again and the spring campaign of inspections of NGOs in Russia has left them outside the law. Well, in Krasnodar Territory at least. I say this from first-hand experience: I am writing about what I saw and took part in myself. 

At 7:30 am on 8 April 2013 a group of employees of the Directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) for Krasnodar Territory called at the home of Elena Shablo, head of the NGO the Information Study Centre, and took her away. For some reason the FSB Directorate is looking into the spending of budget subsidies (grants) by four NGOs in Krasnodar Territory. The fate of Elena did not become known until 5:00 pm. All this time she did not answer her phone. She did not eat anything. They tried to get a confession out of her but confessing to something you haven't done is not easy... Elena's young son tried every few minutes to phone her and was starting to panic. At 2:50 pm her mother Nina Aleksandrovna phoned the FSB Directorate for Krasnodar Territory. The person who answered the phone told her brusquely that she did not understand who she should phone and advised her to contact the police to report a missing person. At around 4:30 pm Elena's mother called the police emergency number and reported that her daughter had disappeared at the FSB Directorate. I received this information from Elena's mother and began ringing my colleagues, members of the Public Oversight Commission for Krasnodar Territory, to ask them to organise an inspection of the detention cells of the FSB Directorate for Krasnodar Territory, if Elena did not turn up... She was not released until around 5:00 pm. It is possible that she was released because I had a telephone conversation about the inspections and I know my phone is tapped. Having released someone who is virtually unconscious after subjecting them to 9 hours of their experiments, the officers of the FSB Directorate deliberately did not enter the time this "operation" ended in the minutes, in order to deny the fact that they had committed an offence. The fact is this was not an interrogation, since an interrogation or questioning cannot last any longer than 4 hours. But then I guess that legal norms do not apply to members of NGOs who have been declared to be outside the law? 

What happened on 8 April was the natural result of the certainty employees of the FSB Directorate have of their own impunity. From the first day of the inspections of NGOs in Krasnodar Territory their behaviour has been unacceptable. They were probably confident that the Public Prosecutor's Office, their partner in these round-ups, would not do anything.

The history of the violations began back on 14 March, when in Krasnodar and Novorossiysk the FSB Directorate seized computers and documents during special investigation operations and searches of premises at the Southern Regional Resource Centre, the non-state educational institution the Information Study Centre, the Aqua Centre of Environmental Education, and the Krasnodar Territory non-governmental organisation the Philanthropist Social Assistance and Human Rights Centre. The reason for the seizures, as recorded in the resolution, was to "search for and seize items and documents which could be used to document illegal activities connected with the rules for the allocation and spending in 2012 of financial funds in the form of subsidies (grants) from the administration of Krasnodar Territory, allocated to support socially useful programmes of socially oriented non-profit organisations." It should be noted that these were not searches. In terms of the law, no complaints were levied either against the actual organisations against whom the seizures were carried out, or against their employees. Employees of these organisations were not suspects and none of them were charged.

I was in the office of the Southern Regional Resource Centre (SRRC) from the morning of 14 March. I am a member of its board. Personal computers and papers related to the carrying out of the Building the World social programme by the SRRC in 2012 were taken from the office. At that time I was phoned up by a representative of Mekhri Somonien, a Krasnodar Territory NGO on Tajik national culture, who said that a group of inspectors had arrived at their office. After the seizure of documents from the SRRC was completed, I headed over to their office at 105 Sadovaya Street, Krasnodar. By the time I arrived the "visitors" to the Tajik organisation had already left. But even so I was still a witness to the unacceptable actions of a group of employees of the FSB Directorate. 

According to members of Mekhri Somonien, the only entrance to the courtyard was blocked by a black Toyota Land Cruiser and a Honda car without licence plates, both belonging to the security forces. It is believed the vehicles belonged to the officers of the FSB Directorate for Krasnodar Territory. In other words, the entrance and exit to and from the courtyard of 105 Sadovaya Street was blocked by these two vehicles. It is completely unclear what the need for this was. It was more like a raid than a seizure of documents. Questions arise about the legality of the use by the security forces of vehicles without licence plates during the course of actions such as, according to the resolution, "a search of premises with the aim of finding items and documents which could be used for documenting illegal activities." 

At around 10:00 am on 14 March documents and papers were seized from the Information Study Centre. When I arrived at their office I saw a group of people, one of whom asked me who I was. I replied that I had not come to see them but the organisation. One of the members of this group (it later transpired, a member of the FSB Directorate) said that they were conducting an operation and advised me to leave the building. Later, from about 4:00 pm I spent several hours, until around 8:00 pm, waiting for this operation to end. Meanwhile, most of the group who conducted the search of the Information Study Centre had left the building about 90 minutes before that time. But the group's leader and the head of the Information Study Centre, Elena Shablo, were still in the organisation's office... An employee of the Information Study Centre came up to me and said that Elena Shablo was crying, she had heard it through the door. I was forced to go up to the organisation's office and tell the leader of the group that in my opinion he was conducting an illegal interrogation. To which the gentleman replied that he was acting within the law in conducting the interrogation. 

Although the operation at the Information Study Centre was not a search, all the employees of the organisation were forbidden from using their mobile phones or answering calls on the office telephone. Furthermore, the so-called seizure of items and documents carried on for more than a full working day. The relatives of people who were forbidden from answering their phones were unable to get through to them and started getting frantic with worry. The organisation's employees were not even allowed to tell their families simply that they were alive and okay. For the first few hours they were not allowed to leave the room in which the operation was being conducted. I stress again that this operation was not a search, and the employees of the Information Study Centre are not suspects and have not been charged with any offences. 

From a conversation I had with an employee of the Information Study Centre I found out that during the "inspection of the premises" claims were made against them of alleged violations and crimes carried out by them, which would lead to serious consequences. For example, forgery of documents: the licence to carry out educational activities, issued to the Information Study Centre by the Krasnodar Territory Education Department, was allegedly a fake. This completely groundless allegation could have no other purpose, in my opinion, than to intimidate the organisation's employees. In addition, accusations were made against the staff of the Information Study Centre in relation to foreign citizens studying on courses at this non-state educational institution, which is not prohibited by the Russian legislation, and the rules for who can be accepted on courses are defined by the organisation's own regulations. I have serious doubts about the legality of the actions of public officials during operations that go under the official name of "inspection of premises." Although, of course, those that have been placed outside the law in Russia can be intimidated and psychologically broken with total impunity... 

Immediately after the events of 14 March I made a statement, in which I said that the violations of people's rights in the course of future inspections would continue and intensify. That is exactly what happened. For Krasnodar Territory such actions by the security forces are typical. We only have to recall the events of roughly three years ago: the case of Anastasia Denisova, whom members of the security service tried to implicate in crimes which she had not committed. It was only the combined, concerted efforts of a large number of people and organisations that succeeded in defending this individual. I took part in the public campaign to defend Anastasia and I remember what huge efforts this required. 

The reaction to the complaints and appeals in relation to the violations against employees of the Information Study Centre and other NGOs from the Public Prosecutor's Office, the FSB and the public council for this service have been fairly predictable. For instance, in April 2013 the Public Prosecutor's Office launched an investigation into articles published in the press containing information about violations of the law committed by members of the FSB Directorate for Krasnodar Territory. During this "investigation" people were questioned who had absolutely nothing to do with the case. But nobody questioned the people whose rights had been violated. The fact that the Directorate of the Federal Security Service was conducting an investigation into how NGOs spent budget subsidies is itself already well outside the boundaries of Russian law.

The point is that under Russian law, subsidies (grants) are allocations of money for particular purposes. In other words, it is done on a competitive basis as a gift to your organisation. That means that after this money has been received it is no longer budget money, but money that belongs to your organisation. It cannot be misappropriated because it is your money, not anyone else's. The worst that could happen with this money is that it is not used as intended. If the subsidy money is spent on something other other than that which is stated in the agreement, then this is improper use and this money, according to the law, should be returned to the budget.

Authorised use is not monitored by the FSB or the police! The regulations for allocating, spending and reporting on subsidies is defined in general terms in the Budget Code of the Russian Federation and set out in detail as it applies to NGOs who receive funds from the federal budget (which is why the spending of these grants is currently being actively verified) in Government Resolution No. 713 of 23 August 2011 On Providing Support to Socially Oriented Non-Profit Organisations. I quote: "18. The monitoring of the authorised use of subsidies is carried out by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and the Federal Service for Fiscal and Budgetary Supervision." So it turns out that the FSB Directorate for Krasnodar Territory simply wanted very much to demonstrate how it could turn NGOs that had broken the law into its victims and did things it had no right to do. And why shouldn't they? They're above the law, aren't they? 

I think I know what will happen to NGOs in Krasnodar Territory. Since the spiral of our country's history has already taken a turn downwards, the answer is obvious: falsification of cases and torture.

Mikhail Savva 
Deputy Chair of the Public Oversight Commission 
for Krasnodar Territory 

9 April 2013