June 21, 2007
NGO Head Flees Over 'Stupid Oversight'
By David Nowak
On Jan. 21, Manana Aslamazian walked through customs at Sheremetyevo Airport with a little more undeclared cash than is allowed.
Five months later, she faces a decade or more in prison, and the nongovernmental organization she heads -- the Educated Media Foundation -- is in tatters.
Little wonder that Aslamazian is on extended vacation in Paris.
"I am going to work in America, Asia, Africa and Europe, pay my taxes in Russia, and wait until the court finally figures out why my personal mistake, for which I am ready to accept a fair and appropriate penalty, became the excuse for suspending the work of a large organization that brought a lot of benefit to the country," the Armenian-born Russian said in a statement.
The Educated Media Foundation is a U.S.-funded NGO that trains journalists, including those from state-connected media such as NTV television.
Aslamazian could not be reached Wednesday, but her lawyer Viktor Parshutkin said she would not be back in Russia until authorities dropped the charges, which he in turn called "absolute rubbish," "a joke," and "politically motivated."
Aslamazian has acknowledged her guilt from day one, calling her airport transgression a "stupid oversight."
After stepping off a flight from Paris, she failed to declare the 9,550 euros -- which she said were a debt collected from a friend in France -- in her bag. Any amount worth more than $10,000 must be declared.
In Aslamazian's case, that was around $2,400 too much. Aslamazian's money and documents were confiscated at the airport.
Three months later, about 20 officers from the Interior Ministry's economic crime department arrived at the NGO's offices in central Moscow with orders to search the premises and seize all documents and computers.
Aslamazian said at the time that the officers had told her the search was linked to a criminal investigation into the Sheremetyevo incident. No further explanation was given, she said.
Then last month, tax authorities froze the NGO's bank accounts, citing incorrectly filed tax reports. Again, Aslamazian rejected the charges as a coordinated effort to shut the group down.
Moscow's Golovinsky District Court is expected to rule Thursday on the legality of the raid. During a hearing Wednesday, lawyer Parshutkin learned for the first time that his client had been officially charged with smuggling, which carries a maximum five-year sentence.
Interior Ministry investigative committee official Natalya Vinogradova, who was acting as a prosecutor in court, said Aslamazian was charged on June 15, Parshutkin said.
"We have never received a piece of paper with any charges," Parshutkin said.
He said he met Vinogradova on June 13 and she had asked to arrange a meeting with Aslamazian. Partushkin said that was not possible.
Vinogradova could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Aslamazian could be hit with even more charges. Vinogradova told the court Wednesday that she had found evidence of illegal business activity and money laundering after inspecting computers and documents seized from the NGO's office in April, Parshutkin said.
"Vinogradova said she sent the material to the Prosecutor General's Office for further examination. It's absolute rubbish," he said.
Convictions in all three charges could result in a prison sentence of more than 10 years.
Court officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. But Igor Tsokolov, head of the investigative committee of the ministry's organized crime department, told Kommersant in comments published Wednesday that authorities were ready to charge Aslamazian with a "gross violation" of the Criminal Code.
Aslamazian, Parshutkin and more than 2,000 media professionals recently signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin that complains authorities view the foundation as a threat to Kremlin-friendly reportage.
Parshutkin said Wednesday that authorities knew full well the April raid was illegal. "Because of that, no court wants to deal with this case," he said. "Everyone is passing the buck."
The Golovinsky District Court handed the case to the Savyolovsky District Court because it was closer to the foundation's offices and therefore within its jurisdiction. After a delay to the case in May, it was inexplicably sent back to the Golovinsky District Court.
A spokesman at the Prosecutor General's Office, which is to examine the computers and documents for evidence of money laundering and illegal business activity, referred all questions to the Interior Ministry.
Pavel Klimovsky, a ministry spokesman, first said he knew nothing of the case and later declined immediate comment.
The NGO law was tightened last year after Putin said he would not tolerate foreign funds being used for political activities. The new NGO law increased the amount of paperwork that NGOs must keep and required them to reregister under stringent new guidelines. Foreign-connected NGOs played key roles in regime changes in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
The skeletal staff that remains at the Educated Media Foundation, the legal successor of Internews, say all financial transactions have been meticulously documented.