Russian police beat up top rights activist, party leader

Russian police beat up top rights activist, party leader

MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
Russian police beat up top rights activist, party leader

Supporters of the 'For Human Rights' organization gather outside its office in Moscow, June 22. REUTERS photo

The head of a top Russian rights group and an opposition leader said June 22 they had been assaulted by riot police during a raid on the NGO, in the latest crackdown on activists during Vladimir Putin's new term.

In a night-time raid, dozens of men swept the offices of the group For Human Rights and assaulted some 10 people including the group's head Lev Ponomaryov and leader of the Yabloko liberal opposition party Sergei Mitrokhin.

Mitrokhin, who plans to run against the incumbent pro-Kremlin Moscow mayor in polls this fall, showed up at the group's offices in a sign of support after they were told to vacate the premises in a dispute with the city authorities over rent.

The liberal politician suggested representatives of Russian special services were coordinating the raid and accused the Kremlin of being behind the attack.

"I believe it was an order from the very top," he told AFP. "The Moscow mayor's office was just implementing the order. They acted with deliberate violence." Over the past months authorities have raided hundreds of non-profit groups including For Human Rights as part of a crackdown prompted by a controversial new law requiring NGOs that receive international donations to register as "foreign agents." Ponomaryov and Mitrokhin said that when they refused to leave the office, the police and security guards stormed the premises, changed the locks on the doors, assaulted them and threw them out on the street in the middle of the night.

"They kicked me, dragged me across the floor and then threw me out onto the street," Ponomaryov, 71, told AFP. "They kicked me in the kidney," he said. "They dragged me headfirst down the stairs," he said.

Dispute over rent

 Ponomoryov said he had had a long-running dispute with the mayor's office which claims the group has not paid for its offices and has to vacate them. Mitrokhin also received injuries when he was kicked down the stairs. "His pant leg was stained in blood from the knee down," his aide Sophya Rusova said, adding he also had to receive treatment for his injuries.

"Today in front of the For Human Rights offices Putin made it perfectly clear that it will be like in Nazi Germany," Mitrokhin said on Twitter.

The raid came as Putin sought to allay foreign investors' concerns about the arbitrariness of the rule of law in Russia during an economic forum in Saint Petersburg.

Kremlin rights envoy Vladimir Lukin accused the police of violating law during the dispute. "Disputes of such nature should be solved in court," he said in televised remarks.

A spokeswoman for Moscow police, Svetlana Kokotova, said the riot police had not assaulted anyone and participated in the dispute so as not to "allow panic and chaos." An official at the Moscow city hall in charge of property said the lease agreement with the group had run out in January. "I do not understand what the fuss is all about," Yekaterina Solovyova told AFP.

US ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul said he was concerned by the raid. "One more example of intimidating civil society," he said on Twitter.