Russia Cracks Down on Moscow Election Monitors

Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director of the Golos Association, an independent vote monitoring group, visits a peace justice court in Moscow on June 4, 2013. Criminal investigators searched Melkonyants's apartment on July 7, 2015, in connection with criminal proceedings for alleged tax evasion. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Russian authorities on July 7 searched the Moscow office of the Golos Association, the country's leading election-monitoring organization, and the homes of four Golos members, Human Rights Watch reports. The searches appeared to be part of a broader government crackdown on the independent monitoring group.

Criminal investigators searched the apartments of Grigory Melkonyants and Roman Udot, co-chairs of Golos; Tatyana Troinova, the executive director; and Valentina Denisenko, a former staff member. Later that day, investigators searched the Moscow office.

Authorities said that the searches were linked to criminal proceedings for alleged tax evasion that began in February against Ludmila Kuzmina, head of the Golos regional branch in Samara. Kuzmina denies the charges and has said the investigation is designed to intimidate her. Golos has campaigned to support Kuzmina, calling the prosecution political.

"Elections should be free and fair, and that is what organizations like Golos are committed to ensure" said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government shouldn't be trying to hamper election watchdog groups and intimidate their employees."

The Golos movement is the largest network of associations of citizens monitoring federal and local elections in Russia. It is widely known for its training programs for election observers, creating a system of parallel vote counting and producing an interactive map that allows election observers to identify places where observers saw apparent violations of election rules. Golos experts are actively involved in preparing proposals for election reform in Russia.

During the searches, computers, phones and other electronic devices containing data related to Golos activity and some personal belongings of Golos members were seized.

Melkonyants told Human Rights Watch that at about 6 a.m. a woman he did not know knocked on his door claiming she was a downstairs neighbor and that there was a serious water leak from his apartment to hers. Melkonyants checked his pipes for leaks and reassured the woman through the door that there was no leak.

The woman aggressively demanded that he open the door. When he refused, he heard the sounds of the door being broken from the outside. He called the police.

Then the door was forced open and Melkonyants saw several law enforcement officials accompanied by a television crew and the woman, his supposed neighbor. The officials introduced themselves as criminal investigators, presented Melkonyants with a search warrant and appointed the woman, whom they seemed to be acquainted with, as a search witness.

"I would've opened the door immediately, if only the investigators explained what was happening," he said. "I have no doubt that the pretend neighbor story and the dramatic breaking of my apartment door was done for the benefit of the television crew. They showed it on NTV [a federal TV channel] on the same day.… The authorities endeavor to hinder our work monitoring elections."

Olga Gnezdilova, a human rights lawyer who assisted Golos representatives during the searches, told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement officials denied her entry to Melkonyants's home during the search, although under Russian law Melkonyants was entitled to have his lawyer present. Gnezdilova also said that the two allegedly independent search witnesses, whose presence is required by Russian law, appeared to know and be on familiar terms with the investigators. She also said that the witnesses appeared biased against Golos and claimed that the organization worked for foreign intelligence services.

Gnezdilova said that Golos representatives will challenge the searches in court, as the organization believes they were conducted illegally. "We are convinced that the real aim of this is to encumber the work of election observers in the country," she said.

"Russia should foster a normal working climate for independent activists and election monitors," Williamson said. "Authorities should not be able to use criminal prosecution as a tool of repression against critics of the government."

This report first appeared on the Human Rights Watch site.