April 19, 2007.
Raising Fears, Police Officers Raid U.S. NGO
By Svetlana Osadchuk
About 20 police officers locked themselves in the Moscow offices of a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Wednesday, and they were continuing to confiscate papers from filing cabinets and desks late into the evening.
The raid on Internews, which trains journalists and works with many media outlets, sparked fears about a possible crackdown under a restrictive, new NGO law.
Manana Aslamazian, executive director of Internews Moscow, said police were linking the search to her detention at Sheremetyevo Airport in January for failing to declare excess cash. But she believed it was more than that.
"We are not a media outlet; we just train media people. I think all this is related to foreign NGO restrictions in Russia," she said by cell phone from her offices on Wednesday evening.
A police officer guarding the entrance to Internews' offices earlier in the day refused to comment on what was going on. A crowd of 20 reporters and camera crews packed the hallway outside the locked steel door leading to the offices, located in the Central House of Journalists.
About 20 officers from the Interior Ministry's economic crimes department and led by Colonel Sergei Demidov arrived at the offices at noon with orders to search the premises and seize all documents, Aslamazian said. A group of regional reporters were in the offices at the time attending a training session, she said. Police were keeping them and all Internews staff in the office Wednesday evening.
Former NTV anchor Svetlana Sorokina said she believed the authorities were trying to cast Aslamazian and Internews in the worst possible light and deprive Internews of the possibility to influence the media community ahead of elections. State Duma elections will be held in December, followed by the presidential vote in March.
"I am not surprised with this, because Internews is an organization that trains regional journalists," Sorokina said outside Internews' offices. "We teach them to cover events as they are, not like the Dissenters' March was presented in the media."
Opposition activists staged marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg that ended in police violence last weekend.
Sorokina, a member of Internews' board, said she had come to teach the regional journalists inside, and she rang the doorbell several times before her cell phone rang and she was told that the police officers were holding a meeting to decide whether to let her in. She was allowed in 15 minutes later.
Several staff members stepped out for a moment and said they had been told to stay until the raid ended.
Aslamazian said the raid was taking a long time due to the enormous number of financial documents the NGO had on file.
"We have tried to be really accurate with our funds and have documents for all transactions," she said.
The new NGO law, which came into force a year ago last Sunday, increased the amount of paperwork that NGOs must keep and required them to reregister under stringent new guidelines. The law was adopted after President Vladimir Putin said he would not tolerate foreign funds being used by NGOs for political activities. Foreign-connected NGOs played key roles in regime changes in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
Internews is a media development organization based in California. Its Moscow office, which is registered as a Russian NGO, works with a variety of media outlets, including NTV television.
"It is obvious that NGOs are under great suspicion now. There is a paranoia that they are being used for political activities and a fear of an Orange Revolution," said Allison Gill, the Moscow head of Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based NGO.
As for Wednesday's raid, "I do not know what is the legal basis for this particular case, but the case in Sheremetyevo appeared to be targeted," Gill said.
Aslamazian and another Internews officer were detained Jan. 21 in the green channel at Sheremetyevo customs after arriving from Paris. A customs official asked whether they were carrying "sizeable" amounts of cash. They said they were, and the money was confiscated.
Aslamazian was carrying 9,550 euros ($12,400), while her companion had 10,000 euros ($13,000) and small amounts in rubles and Thai baht. Travelers are permitted to bring any amount of cash into Russia, but amounts equivalent to more than $10,000 must be declared.
Aslamazian explained at the time that they had not known they had to declare the money.
Aslamazian said Wednesday that a criminal investigation was opened against her on Jan. 31 and that the officers carrying out the raid had presented her with a search order in connection with that investigation.
"It was the Sheremetyevo Airport police who opened the case, but the officers who are searching here are from the economic crimes department," she said.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry's economic crimes department, Alexander Vorobyov, declined to comment on the search. An official with the ministry's investigative committee, Svetlana Stasenko, also declined comment.
If convicted of smuggling, Aslamazian could face a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years.