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Lights Out for Another Human Rights Office in Russia

Lights Out for Another Human Rights Office in Russia

Human rights work must be bad for the Russian government’s health. On Wednesday, Amnesty International’s Moscow staff showed up at work to find their office locked and sealed with electricity cut off.

City authorities left a note on the door, saying the office was “property of a city of the Russian Federation” and no one could go into the office without an official escort.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, called the move an “unwelcome surprise for which we received no prior warning.”

And owing rent money wasn’t the problem. “We are 100 percent confident that we fulfilled all our obligations as tenants,” he added. Sergei Nikitin, the head of Amnesty International in Russia, said the human rights watchdog had rented the offices from the local city government for more than two decades.

Amnesty International, a London-based human rights organization, has been a vocal critic of the Russian government’s crackdowns on freedom of speech, free press, and civil society groups. Just a day before its office was shut down, Amnesty called on the Russian government to release imprisoned anti-Kremlin protester Ildar Dadin and highlighted a letter he wrote from behind bars, alleging being tortured.

In May 2015, Russia enacted a draconian law to blacklist what it described as “undesirable organizations” with foreign funding that, according to the statute, could undermine “state security,” “national defense,” or “constitutional order.” To translate this from Orwellian language, the law gave the Russian government carte blanche authority to target and disrupt civil society groups, independent think tanks, and human rights watchdogs.

With its new powers, the Russian government has already blacklisted the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute, Media Development Investment Fund, and other prominent foreign-funded civil society organizations.

“This reprehensible move to blacklist so-called ‘undesirable organizations’ marks another low point for Russian authorities that have systematically sought to slash and burn the country’s civil society in recent years,” Dalhuisen said at the time of NED’s blacklisting in 2015.

As of last month, the Russian government had designated 147 groups as “foreign agents” — a designation that’s close to “spy” or “traitor,” according to Human Rights Watch. Since 2012, independent organizations had to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines and forced closure.

“Given the current climate for civil society work in Russia, there are clearly any number of plausible explanations, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions,” Dalhuisen said of Wednesday’s sudden and inexplicable office closure.

This is not the first time Amnesty International has been targeted for its work. To name just one earlier incident, authorities in Thailand threatened in September to arrest Amnesty representatives after the organization released a report on police torture.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images