Freedom is first fatality as a new iron curtain falls

December 9, 2005

Bill Bowring, a human rights lawyer, was deported from Russia and fears for NGOs in the country

At 5am on November 15, I was stopped by Russian passport control and prevented from entering the country. I was there to observe two trials in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, formerly Gorky, of a leading provincial Russian human rights non-governmental organisation and its leader, on behalf of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC). I had arrived on the overnight flight from London, with my multi-entry visa, valid until September 2006.

My passport and air ticket were taken away from me. I was held at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport by border guards, who are now part of the FSB (the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB). For nearly six hours I was forced to sit on a chair outside Office No. 21, which deals with deportations. At 11am, I was put on a plane to London. My passport was returned; my visa had two diagonal stamps across it reading annulirovano - cancelled. The border guards said they were executing orders from above.

My case was taken up at the highest level. When, later that day, staff of the Russian parliamentary human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, rang the Russian Foreign Ministry to find out the reasons for my deportation, the only response they got was that the guards had been acting on instructions.

Alan Holmes, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow, told Radio Freedom: "We have taken up our concerns with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a high level." Peter Carter QC, the chairman of the BHRC, has written to the Russian ambassador in London. The Foreign Office has protested to Russia.

I would not want to speculate as to why I was deported. I have already instructed a lawyer in Russia to take a case for judicial review on my behalf. But information on my background may throw some light on the matter. I am a practising barrister and teach human rights and international law at London Metropolitan University. Since 1983 I have travelled very regularly to all parts of the USSR and its successor states, first in the context of town twinning (I was for eight years a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth), and then, from 1991, when the USSR collapsed, as a lecturer, trainer and expert. I became fluent in Russian.

In 1996, I was recruited to Essex University as part of the Economic and Social Research Council scheme to encourage Russian area studies. The following year I helped Essex to win a contract to provide advice to the newly created Department for International Development on judicial reform and human rights in Russia. I served as contract adviser to the DFID's Russia Programme until 2004. I was responsible for seven large projects. At the same time I acted frequently as an expert for the European Union and the Council of Europe. I served as one of the council's experts assisting the Russian Government with its new Criminal Procedural Code. I have also in the past been invited by the Russian Government to teach human rights at the Chechen State University and to train senior judges. I have published widely on problems of Russian law and the implementation of human rights, and my experience has informed this work.

In 1996, Russia joined the Council of Europe, committing itself to 29 binding obligations for ratification of treaties and changes in law and practice. It ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, which, under its constitution, became an integral part of Russian law. This diplomatic success for Russia was controversial, since it took place against the background of atrocities committed by Russian forces in the first Chechen armed conflict, from 1994 to 1997. In late 1999, Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister, sent Russian forces into Chechnya again. The Russian historical remembrance society Memorial and the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) began to send back shocking reports of civilian massacres and wholly disproportionate use of military force, confirmed by Lord Frank Judd, the rapporteur for the council's parliamentary assembly.

In April 2000, I began to assist the Memorial human rights centre to prepare cases for the Strasbourg Court on behalf of applicants whose children and relatives had been killed by Russian bombing. In March the following year, London Met, the BHRC and Memorial applied jointly for e1 million for a project to enable people in Russia to take cases to Strasbourg. We were awarded the money in December 2002, and the first six Chechen cases against Russia were declared admissible. Earlier this year, the First Section of the European Court of Human Rights delivered three resounding judgments in the first six cases to be brought against the Russian Federation in relation to the current conflict in Chechnya. When the court rejected an application from Russia to the Grand Chamber, the judgments became final. Together with a Russian lawyer - one of eight employed by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Russia - I represented the applicants.

Recently, grave new threats have emerged in relation to civil society in Russia - threats to organisations such as Memorial and HRW. HRW has warned of "the evisceration of civil society in Russia". Late last month the Russian State Duma passed at first reading a draft law that would force all NGOs operating in Russia to re-register with a special state commission within a year. The legislation would in effect prohibit foreign funding of human rights NGOs and place the whole of civil society under strong state control. The law, which could be enacted as early as January, would also allow the state to control the funding and expenses of NGOs. Foreign-funded NGOs would be barred from working in Russia through representative offices, as most currently do. Russian experts have spoken of an "atmosphere of growing hostility towards NGOs, especially human rights and pro-democracy ones".

The trial of the Nizhny Novogoro NGO reflects this atmosphere. The NGO - the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship - its executive director Stanislav Dmitrievsky and its newspaper Human Rights Protection are under attack on three fronts. The Ministry of Justice is seeking to close down the society, the prosecuting authorities have charged Dmitrievsky with incitement to racial hatred and the tax authorities have served an enormous tax demand, fine and allegation of tax evasion. They have decided that grants received by the society from the European Commission and the US National Endowment for Democracy, which have been spent on the projects for which they were intended, and have been audited, are to be treated as pure profit and taxed accordingly. If applied across Russia, this would spell disaster for most of its 400,000 NGOs, especially the 2,000 working exclusively on human rights.

I visited Nizhny Novgorod in June on behalf of the BHRC and wrote a report for the committee and the EC. On my return visit in November, I had hoped to act as an international observer at the trials of the society and Dmitrievsky. Just over a week after I was deported, General Nikolai Patrushev, director of the FSB, said the following in an interview for the official Government newspaper: "To step up the fight against cross-border crime, the border service must be professionalised. Therefore, measures are being taken to reduce the number of draft servicemen and to switch to professional manning of the border service. The initial measures taken have made it possible to enhance the results of the border service's operational activity. In particular, the number of people who were denied entry to the Russian Federation for particular reasons has increased by a factor of more than 13 since 2002 (2002 - 8,243I so far this year - 110,866)." Readers may draw their own conclusions as to why I am in effect persona non grata in Russia.

Bill Bowring is professor of human rights and international law and director of the Research Institute on Human Rights and Social Justice at London Metropolitan University.

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