Court issues mixed decision on pro-independence Chechen Web site

New York, October 1, 2003—The Second District Court in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius yesterday ruled that the State Security Department overstepped its authority when it shuttered the pro-independence Chechen Web site KavkazCenter on June 20.

The State Security Department disconnected and confiscated KavkazCenter‘s server at the private Vilnius-based Internet provider Elneta on June 20 because the Web site was allegedly spreading “terrorist propaganda,” according to local and international press reports.

The Second District Court ordered the State Security Department to return the confiscated server to Elneta and said that only the judiciary was authorized to restrict the dissemination of information.

But the court also rejected the September 9 findings of the government’s Journalists and Publishers Ethics Commission, which had ruled that the site was free of hate speech. The court concluded that some of the material on the site promoted national and religious hatred. As a result, according to a government official involved in the case, from now on the director of Elneta will be responsible for monitoring the site’s content.

The presence of KavkazCenter on the Elneta server had strained relations between Russia and Lithuania, and the State Security Department had filed a civil case against Elneta and its director, Rimantas Pasys, after the department confiscated the server on June 20.

After the June 20 closure, Lithuanian human rights activists and politicians rallied in support of KavkazCenter, and the Web site went back on line August 6 from a server based in the apartment of Soviet-era dissident Viktoras Petkus.

The Russian Embassy in Vilnius has previously called on Lithuanian authorities to shutter KavkazCenter, which is supportive of Chechen rebels fighting for independence from Russia.

Some journalists rely on the Web site for information due to the Kremlin’s access restrictions on the war-torn region, as well as ongoing security risks in Chechnya.

The private Internet service provider MicroLink Data hosted KavkazCenter in Lithuania until April, when the company terminated its contract with the Web site.

The Web site then moved to AS Starman, a private Internet service provider based in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and Russian officials pressured Estonian authorities to close it.

Sergei Yastrezhembsky, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned in April that, “Countries which aspire to partnership and mutually advantageous relations with the Russian Federation should bear in mind Russia’s categorical objection to the hosting of information resources on behalf of Chechen separatists,” the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also called on Estonia several times to shutter the site.

In May, KavkazCenter moved to Elneta, and Russian authorities renewed their pressure on Lithuanian officials.