MOSCOW -- A prominent Russian human rights activist and associates, including a Moscow mayoral candidate, were forcibly evicted from his office by security agents Saturday morning, in the latest government crackdown against political opposition and nongovernmental advocacy organizations.
Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights, said he sustained light injuries when police raided the office between 2 and 3 a.m., roughing him up and saying he was being evicted because his group’s lease had expired.
He said his friend and opposition leader Sergei Mitrokhin, who was in the office at the time as a gesture of solidarity, was thrown down the stairs by security officers. Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, is running for mayor in an election to be held in September.
“This outrageous act has nothing to do with lease expiration and is certainly politically motivated,” Ponomaryov said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The authorities thus are sending a signal to civil society that they will no longer put up with human rights activists causing a constant headache for the Kremlin.”
The Moscow police department, in a statement on its website Saturday, said police did not use force in the raid.
The action was clearly legal, the Moscow property department said. “The demand to free the occupied premises … was not fulfilled, in which connection the Department of Moscow City Property jointly with the Department of Regional Security and law enforcement organs conducted a procedure of freeing city premises,” it said on its website.
Moscow authorities on Friday informed Ponomaryov that his group had to leave the office immediately because its lease had expired in February. The rights organization has leased the apartment in Kislovsky Pereulok in downtown Moscow for 15 years, in which it monitored human rights violations and assisted thousands, from businessmen to people in prison.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin compelled Parliament to pass a measure saying nongovernment organizations should officially declare themselves “foreign agents” if they are funded from abroad. The For Human Rights movement was one of the first of hundreds of NGOs in Russia to come under official scrutiny, with tax inspectors and prosecutors thoroughly examining its papers and books, seriously impeding the organization’s work.
The news of the lease expiration came as a surprise, Ponomaryov said. The organization had paid its rent and bills on time all these months and the Moscow government had accepted those payments with no complaints or warnings, he said.
On Friday afternoon, officers of a private security company arrived at the premises on behalf of authorities and began to change the locks on the doors. When Ponomaryov refused to leave, colleagues and associates stayed with him in the office until the riot police arrived.
“They were deliberately and demonstratively rough with us,” Ponomaryov said. “They threw me on the floor and kicked me with their boots. Two men in civilian clothes who led the operation joined in the beating too.”
The plainclothes officers giving orders refused to show documents or identify themselves, Mitrokhin said.
“I am sure they were from the FSB [Federal Security Service, the KGB successor] and that the raid was ordered from the very top,” Mitrokhin said. “Two [six-foot tall] riot policemen dressed in black uniforms kicked me and pushed me, sending me falling down the stairs.”
Ponomaryov said he would demand a criminal investigation and that he would file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. He also expressed concern about the safety of the organization’s archives and a dozen computers left in the office.
Mitrokhin said his iPad was snatched during the raid and police refused to return it.
The eviction was part of an ongoing crackdown on opposition and human rights groups conducted by the Kremlin since President Vladimir Putin’s election victory in March 2012, said Alexander Cherkasov, head of the human rights group Memorial.
“Lev Ponomaryov is one of the most intransigent fighters for human rights and probably this is the reason he was chosen for this action,” Cherkasov said. “By dealing so ruthlessly with him and his organization, the authorities want to scare everyone else who dares to criticize them or investigate their actions.”