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State Department Troubled By Activist's Arrest In Russia

Jan 11, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 6:11 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia is cracking down on a group dedicated to exposing human rights abuses. One leader of this organization, called Memorial, is being forced to undergo psychiatric testing. The U.S. State Department says it's troubled by the arrest of another Memorial activist on drug charges. Let's talk this through with NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is this group finding that's so troubling to President Vladimir Putin's government?

KIM: Well, the first activist you mentioned, his name is Yuri Dmitriev and he's a historian in northern Russia who uncovered a Stalin-era mass grave that contains thousands of bodies from the 1930s. And of course today President Vladimir Putin is telling Russians that they should be proud of their history, and in fact in an interview with American filmmaker Oliver Stone last year, he said he was against the demonization of Stalin. So this pressure against the group doesn't really seem like much of a coincidence. I mean, the message from the authorities is really that only enemies of Russia would want to investigate human rights abuses, whether they happened in the past or today, and that they're probably agents of foreign powers.

INSKEEP: OK. So a past that many Russians would think of as the bad old days, Vladimir Putin prefers to think of as the good old days and doesn't want to look too closely. So what is the government doing to these activists?

KIM: OK. Well, this historian Dmitriev, he's being accused of taking pornographic photographs of his foster daughter who's a minor. And even though he's been cleared by previous psychiatric evaluations, he's now in a clinic in Moscow for further examination. And of course to many people that recalls sort of the Soviet practice of sending dissidents to psychiatric hospitals. Now, the second activist, his name is Oyub Titiev. He is the head of Memorial's office in Chechnya in southern Russia. And this week he was arrested on drug possession charges. Today I called Alexander Cherkasov, the head of Memorial, to find out the latest. And what he told me is that police showed up at Titiev's house yesterday looking for his brother and son.

ALEXANDER CHERKASOV: (Through interpreter) It's a common practice in Chechnya to put pressure on people by using their relatives as hostages.

KIM: So in the case of Titiev, what the authorities want is him to confess possessing marijuana. And right now, according to Cherkasov, he's refusing to admit any guilt.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have one person who's been ordered to undergo psychiatric testing, and when it didn't turn out the government's way, they ordered him to do it again. You have this other person who's being pressed to admit various crimes. Is this part of a larger pattern in Russia right now?

KIM: Yes. It's become much more difficult, not only for human rights groups, but basically all non-governmental organizations to work, and especially those that receive foreign financing like Memorial. They have been forced to register as foreign agents. Of course this has been going on for some time. The head of - a former head of Memorial's Chechnya office was murdered in 2009. Her name is Natalya Estemirova, and we still don't know who her killers were. And some of this is also quite trivial, Steve. I mean, Cherkasov, when I talked to him today, he said just last night there was a camera crew from state television sort of hiding in the bushes outside their offices, and when the employees of Memorial came out to go home, these guys jumped out of the bushes and were showering them with all sorts of provocative questions.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks very much.

KIM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.