Comment: State oppression machine vs. environmentalists – next stop, Samara?

Publish date: April 25, 2010

MOSCOW – Police in the Southwest Russian city of Samara raided the office of Sergei Simak, head of the Samara regional branch of the International Socio-Ecological Union (SEU) earlier this month, confiscating documents and Simak’s computer on uncorroborated, on-the-spot suspicions of using unlicensed software.

The April 13 raid’s puzzling circumstances raise the question of whether the search was an isolated incident or another episode in an ongoing chronicle of state authorities using harassment and intimidation attempts to stifle the country’s environmental movement.
Sergei Simak, SEU co-chairman and head of the union’s Samara regional branch, is well-known and well-respected in this city on the River Volga. He serves in the Public Chamber of Samara Region – a local analogue of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a questionable state body that was created with a proclaimed goal of ensuring public oversight over the executive and legislative branches and public participation in government, but has been widely criticised as a see-through attempt by the Kremlin to housebreak the developing civil society – and heads the Public Chamber’s environmental protection committee.

SEU in Samara is engaged in a broad spectre of ecological activities of both local and national significance, with the organisation’s main operations focussed on public monitoring and control of ecological developments, protection of environmental rights of the citizens and defending these rights when they are violated, fostering an awareness of environmental problems and educating the public on ecological issues.

For Simak, who has a Ph.D. in biology and a teaching job as an assistant professor in Samara State University, where he is also vice chancellor in charge of academic affairs, co-chairmanship in SEU is what he has to do outside his working hours, his involvement in the environmental movement being a classic case of public advocacy – dedicating one’s free time to work for the benefit of the public.

The search and document withdrawal

Simak recounted the events of April 13 in a telephone conversation with Bellona. Around 2:00 PM that day, he said, two policemen entered his office at the university. They had brought two attesting witnesses along to oversee the legitimacy of the search procedure. The IDs that the officers showed were those of members of the Samara Regional Police Department’s Economic Crimes Unit and so-called Directorate “E,” for counter-extremism.
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“They showed me a Xerox copy of an unintelligible report regarding a suspected economic offence. On the basis of this, they started to search my office, preparing for temporary confiscation documents that have to do with SEU operations,” Simak said.

Simak kept some of the organisation’s documents and his personal computer in his university office. This had no bearing on his primary job and was a simple device to facilitate the task of managing his time between the responsibilities at the university and his public activities.

Having inspected the scene of the alleged crime, the policemen proceeded to draw up an inspection report. Two hours later, they were joined by two more policemen who became interested in Simak’s computer. According to Simak, one of the officers said: “What if there are pirated programmes there? I have this assumption. We will confiscate the computer for an examination.”

Simak tried to explain that since he used his computer for university-related work as well as SEU files, all the software on it was licensed software installed by the university’s system administrator. His argumentation had no effect. The computer was confiscated.

Does the state equal environmentalists to extremists?

There are still quite a number of blank spots in this story. For one thing, why, if Simak was suspected of committing an economic offence, would the police who came to search his office include members of the counter-extremism unit? The newspaper Samarskaya Gazeta, citing sources in the regional police department, says a criminal case has already been opened based on Russian Criminal Code Article 282, Part 2, “Extremism”:

“A case has been initiated on the basis of an anonymous tip received by the Centre for Counteraction against Extremism. In particular, it said that certain slogans of an extremist nature were heard during [a protest] action [where Simak was taking part]. A case has been initiated based on the [alleged] fact, no suspects have been identified or charges brought, and at the moment, the information is being verified.”

“Notably, it was on April 12 that Samara environmentalists held a picket at the corner of Molodogvardeiskaya Ulitsa and Leningradskaya Ulitsa, demanding that the authorities cease the felling of the unique relict pistache and cedar forest [called Utrish] on the Russian coast of the Black Sea. In an interview given already after the picket, Simak called immoral the destruction of ‘indigenous Mediterranean woodlands for the sake of yet another fitness spa for the Russian president,’” the paper said.

“Samara environmentalists were also protesting the re-launch of the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill that had recently been announced by Russian Premier Vladimir Putin.”

The threat of a pending extremism charge against the well-known environmentalist sparked a wave of indignant comments on the Samarskaya Gazeta website, with postings such as these:

“This is no fight against extremism, but simply a machine for the oppression of the civil society. In [the Samara Region city of] Togliatti, they’re not letting us hold a picket in defence of Utrish and Lake Baikal, we were, too, summoned to this Department “E,” consisting of three people. They’re like pawns who run around rounding up activists instead of catching terrorists. All they want is to put a tick against a name. And this case, it’s just a sleazy frame-up!”
Another commenter said: “This is horrible, this so-called Centre “E” is turning into what it was bound to become anyway – a dangerous repression machine used to quash any activity deemed undesirable by the state.”

It is hard to believe, still, that the situation would be so dire as to see everyone and anyone protesting the government’s decisions with regard to the Utrish forest or Lake Baikal get stamped with the “E” label by the state. The underhanded methods used against a well-respected environmentalist could be the result of a conflict between city-based and regional law enforcement. Or a frame-up-for-hire done for some well-connected businessmen whose paths Simak, a man of an unyielding activist stance, may have crossed.

“We are currently pursuing five lawsuits. Four [have been filed to stop] infill construction, and one regarding the illegal lease and clearing of a plot of woodland,” Simak says. SEU’s Samara branch does not only file lawsuits – it wins them. Last year, for instance, it won a three-year-long court battle for the preservation of a city park: The Cassation Board of the Samara Regional Court upheld on February 25, 2009, the ruling of a lower court of the city’s Leninsky District that prohibited building a shopping mall on the territory of Molodyozhny Park. Hell hath no fury like a business interest scorned – could there be a connection with the recent police raid?

Then again, it looks like Simak’s personal computer was one of the things the police may have been after to begin with. A computer is often the first place to try to find personal information that could be used if not for outright blackmail then at least to make a person more receptive to various means of pressure. Correspondence, work-related and private, a personal photo archive, documents and the like – once at someone’s disposal, these could be a powerful tool in a pair of unscrupulous hands. At the very least, as an instrument of psychological intimidation, or worse, as a scare tactic to threaten with some serious trumped-up criminal charge.

They have come before…

In a bigger scheme of things, it is not uncommon in Russia to see law enforcement agencies show an active interest in environmentalists. More often than not, a police visit to an environmental organisation’s office ends with confiscation of the organisation’s computers. Here are some of the better known cases:

  • Irkutsk, January 28, 2010. Irkutsk Police Department and city prosecutors search the offices of Baikal Ecological Wave, seize twelve computers. Basis: Suspicion of use of unlicensed software.
  • Nizhny Novgorod, September 16, 2008. Nizhny Novgorod Economic Crimes Unit and Federal Security Service search the offices of Ecocentre Dront, seize accounting records, three computers from Dront’s Biodiversity Protection Laboratory.
  • Irkutsk, November 22, 2002. Federal Security Service search and seize office equipment from the offices of Baikal Ecological Wave, charge organisation employees with divulging state secrets. All charges were subsequently dropped, and computers returned.

One apparent trend, however, is the change in scare tactic: The erstwhile ubiquitous charge of divulging state secrets or drawing up “secret maps” – Baikal Ecological Wave was researching the scale of radioactive contamination of water and soil in the vicinity of the Angarsk Chemical Electrolysis Combine, which is a uranium-enrichment facility – has, as a tool of harassment, now ceded its role to a new method: Suspicion of use of counterfeit software. It has been tried this year in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, now in Samara.

Charges are commonly brought on the basis of Article 7-12, Part 1 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation, “Infringement of Copyright and Related Rights.” Part 1 of this article provides for penalties for the “importation, sale, lease or other illegal use of copies of copyrighted works or phonograms for the purpose of deriving revenues… as well as other infringement of copyright or related rights for the purpose of deriving revenues.” Possible penalties include fines ranging from RUR 1,500 to RUR 2,000 ($50 to $70) for private persons, RUR 10,000 to RUR 20,000 ($345 to $685) for civil servants or government office-holders, and RUR 30,000 to RUR 40,000 ($1,000 to $1,370) for legal entities, and confiscation of “counterfeit copies of copyrighted works or phonograms, as well as materials and equipment used for their reproduction and other implements of perpetration of this administrative offence.

It is, in fact, the law that if an unlicensed audio track or video is found on a computer, the computer may be confiscated as an instrument with which the offence is alleged to have been committed.

Pure rubbish

“This is pure rubbish,” Simak said in an interview he gave to Samarskaya Gazeta. “I cannot understand at all the claims made by the police, I have in fact no idea what is going on.”

Simak is simply awaiting explanations from the regional police department, an official charge to be brought against him or, conversely, for the confiscated materials to be returned. It is impossible to counter accusations when the nature of these accusations is unknown. What are they – extremism, economic crimes, use of unlicensed software, or everything all at once?

While Simak is cautious not to give any assessment of the raid, both Russian and international non-governmental organisations have already started a campaign in defence of the Samara environmentalist and the Socio-Ecological Union, clearly identifying a political motive behind the incident and calling it part of an aggravating trend to persecute, harass, and intimidate ecological activists for political reasons.

The international human rights advocacy group CIVICUS has issued a press-release saying it is “deeply concerned that attacks on the environmental movement in Russia are becoming common and systematic. A member of SEU has expressed fears to CIVICUS that, as SEU is currently headquartered out of Samara, the whole organisation may be jeopardized by this latest attack.”

CIVICUS urges President Medvedev to “protect freedoms of association and expression in the country, and ensure that peaceful environmentalism is not regarded as extremism in Russia.”

A similar appeal is being prepared by human rights groups and environmental NGOs based in Russia.

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