Tuesday, January 24, 2006


By William Fisher

Virtually all human rights groups have condemned Russia’s new law governing non-governmental organizations, but the leader of one major NGO disagrees.

“Although the parliament has softened somewhat its original draconian bill,
the legislation still obliges offices of foreign NGOs to inform the government registration office about their projects for the upcoming year, and about the money allotted for every specific project. Russian government officials would have an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia's national interests, as required by the bill,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a major U.S.-based advocacy group.

The organization says, “Officials from the registration office could prohibit foreign NGOs from implementing projects without "the aim of defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing defense capacity and security of the state. If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the registration office could close its offices in Russia.”

But Sharon Tennison, the American head of a Moscow-based NGO, the Center for Citizen Initiatives, calls such comments “alarmist”, and adds that the new legislation “could cut either way, and it won't become obvious until implementation begins. Heated TV debates are occurring, with (President Vladimir) Putin's harshest critics participating.”

Tennison told me, “There are good and bad NGOs in Russia - both domestic and foreign. Regrettably, some have supported activities that would be illegal in America today.”

Tennison acknowledged that the law was presented, amended and signed by President Putin “with few explanations for its need.” But she contends that “Russia's not-for-profit sector is in serious need of regulation. It still hasn't developed legal underpinnings to assure transparency of expenditures, operations or funder information - all of which are crucial for societal trust and civil society development.”

Tennison’s organization conducts programs to assist Russians in securing economic and political reforms and fosters partnerships and relations between the United States and Russia.

She says, “Putin and many Russians harbor deep concerns that foreign and domestic NGOs may be fomenting a "color revolution" in Russia, as they suspect happened recently in the republics of Ukraine and Georgia.”

“The Kremlin is further challenged by Russia's wealthy oligarchs, who have funneled a great deal of money through NGOs in the past three years to destabilize the Putin government. Foreign and oligarch support in Russia has led in some instances to NGOs' pursuing objectives contrary to those of the average citizen and to the stability of the fragile government. This wouldn't go down well in any country."

Tennison recommends that “to align NGO activities with citizens' interests, the Putin administration needs to legislate tax incentives to encourage support for Russia's NGOs, thereby creating a base for in-country private donations, not foreign or oligarch funding.”

She says that Russia “is inching toward a democratic society, but isn’t close yet. The country's long history and harsh conditioning can’t be radically transformed in two short decades. Pushing Russian society and the Putin government faster than they can go at this juncture, will incur consequences that serve neither Russia nor the west.”

The NGO legislation requires Russia's 450,000 civic clubs to re-register with a state authority in order to remain active. Foreign NGOs will be required to notify the Justice Ministry of the location of any offices. Both foreign and national NGOs will also have to provide detailed reports to authorities of any foreign funding and how such funds are spent. Furthermore, the legislation will give officials the power to close any non-profit organization involved in ‘political activity’, a concept that lacks any clarification or definition in the bill.

Tennison concludes, “I'm head of a NGO in Russia and I'm happy to reregister in order to get some decent laws governing Russia's NGO sector. I have nothing to be concerned about since our work helps Russian citizens - we don't do direct ‘political activity’. Nor do I think that out-of-country NGOs should do political activity when there is a freely elected president and government that still enjoys the goodwill and support of the majority of the country.”

But Tennison’ represents a minority view. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, have seen the new law as another Russian move away from democratic governance and a further effort by President Putin to consolidate power in the Kremlin.

HRW says, “The government is entitled to regulate non-governmental organizations, (but) the broad and ambiguous scope of the law poses a serious threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression, in violation of Russia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on states to respect the rights of human rights defenders through legislation and administration.”

“President Putin has claimed that the law's limitations on NGOs are necessary ‘to prevent financing political activities from abroad’. But the bill gives no definition of ‘political activism’, raising serious concerns that the term could be interpreted very broadly by government officials,” HRW declared.

The organization also called on leaders of the G8 countries (to) put this issue at the top of their agenda with President Putin."

Several senior officials of the Russian government have recently made statements that appear intended to undermine without basis the legitimacy of foreign NGOs. On December 8, Sergei Lebedev, head of the Russian intelligence service, charged that foreign "NGOs are very attractive for intelligence services.... as covers, masks, screens." On December 1, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko claimed that "Russia's foreign policy is perceived inadequately abroad.... because Russian and foreign media quote opinions and comments of NGOs financed by western money."

Tennison also takes exception to the findings of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The group contends that “When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Russia under President Boris Yeltsin began to move toward a democratic society…Since Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, however, there has been serious regression in democratic governance. The Russian president and government have become increasingly authoritarian, freedom of the press no longer exists, government authority has been increasingly centralized in the Kremlin, and democracy has been declared a luxury not suited for Russia. One of the most disturbing trends has been the government's effort to eliminate or strictly control NGOs and other institutions that make up civil society.”

Tennison told IPS that the caucus report “is the traditional hype by those who see Russia from only one lens”. It's myopic and dangerous. It’s another smoke screen to divert attention from Iraq.”

She added, “Yeltsin's period wasn't democracy, it was oligarchy. The press was oligarch-owned and an article on any topic, whether untruthful or vengeful, could be placed on front pages for several thousand dollars. This isn't what we call freedom of the press. There was no such thing as real investigative journalism. When journalists wrote anything against the oligarchy they got bumped off. Young, brilliant communist leaders raped the country of its wealthiest enterprises and left Russia bankrupt with nothing to rebuild the country. Is this democracy?”


By William Fisher

Four Muslim men who were detained without charge for months in the weeks after September 11, 2001, eventually cleared of any connection to terrorism, but then deported to Egypt, have been allowed to return to the U.S. to pursue their class action civil lawsuit against the U.S. government for unlawful imprisonment and abuse on behalf of 1,200 other Muslim and South Asian men rounded up and jailed following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Yasser Ebrahim, the first of the men allowed to return from Egypt under strict conditions, gave his deposition in New York on Monday.

The men, who charge they suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in a Brooklyn detention center, are being allowed to participate in the case under strict conditions, including confinement to their hotel rooms and a ban on their speaking to anybody outside the case for the duration of their stay.

The three other plaintiffs are expected to arrive in the U.S. over the next two weeks. Four other deportees are parties to the suit but are not expected to return to the U.S. for depositions

The plaintiffs charge that they were placed in solitary confinement, and suffered severe beatings, incessant verbal abuse and a total blackout on communications with their families and attorneys.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a civil rights advocacy group handling the case, said the conditions for their return to the U.S. are highly unusual in a civil case and a sign of what he called government "paranoia over Muslim and Middle Eastern men."

The case names former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, immigration officials and prison officers among defendants. The suit, originally filed in 2002, seeks compensation and punitive damages.

CCR legal director Bill Goodman told me, “Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Justice detained approximately 2,000 Muslim men, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia. Not one of these men was ever found to have been guilty of any form of terrorism, or even linked to terrorism. These men were held for many months longer than necessary, in solitary confinement, often physically abused and under degrading conditions. The government fought tooth and nail against any judicial oversight of what was going on. This was the beginning of what has been shown to be the U.S. policy of indefinite detention without due process, often involving torture. This lawsuit seeks to challenge and to rectify the illegal actions of the government.”

The plaintiffs’ claims will be bolstered by a 2003 report by Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (IG), who found that some prison officers slammed detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time.

The IG’s report also cited videotapes he said showed that some detention center staff "misused strip searches and restraints to punish detainees and that officers improperly and illegally recorded detainees' meetings with their attorneys."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it had fired two people, demoted two more and six had been suspended for periods from two days to 30 days.

"It means a lot to our clients that finally someone is being held accountable for the brutality they experienced," said CCR attorney Matthew Strugar.

"But we believe the responsibility for these abuses goes further up the chain of command at the Bureau of Prisons and we are disappointed more individuals have not yet been held accountable."

A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.

The New York Times, which interviewed Yasser Ebrahim and his brother Hany in Egypt last week, reported that the two had lived in New York for several years before Sept. 11. Yasser ran a Web site design business and Hany worked in a delicatessen.

The two were arrested on Sept. 30, 2001 and held for around eight months, even after an FBI memo from Dec. 7 stated they were cleared of links to terrorist groups, the lawsuit claims.

"I'm seeking justice," Yasser Ebrahim reportedly told The New York Times. "It's from the same system that did us injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I know what happened before was a mistake."

The case is likely to draw more media attention than most civil lawsuits because it comes at a time when the Bush administration is being accused of ignoring constitutional rights and laws passed by congress by carrying out secret interceptions of international telephone calls and emails by the National Security Agency, part of the Defense Department.

Last week, the CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits asserting that President George W. Bush's authorization of the wiretaps of U.S. citizens without court warrants was illegal. They say it violates the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by congress in 1978. The FISA law established a permanent court that alone has the authority to issue warrants for surveillance of U.S. persons. The law defines U.S. persons as those in the U.S., whether citizens or not.

The Bush Administration contends it has “inherent” constitutional authority to protect the people in time of war, as well as implicit authority in the resolution passed by congress that authorized the president to take military action to win the “Global War on Terror”.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to convene a hearing on the wiretap issue early next month, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will testify.

Before he became Attorney General, Gonzales served as White House Counsel and played a significant role in crafting post 9/11 administration detention policies and practices. So did the current head of our Homeland Security department, who was a senior official in the Ashcroft Justice Department before he was promoted to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

Little has been done to fix the grossly dysfunctional and highly secretive immigration prison system that is now part of our Homeland Security apparatus. It was dysfunctional before 9/11 and it remains dysfunctional today.

So it seems fitting that the lawsuit brought by the deportees should be heard at this particular point in history. It will be yet another test of whether our justice system can work in an environment of war, fear, and executive power.