Russian police search IWPR office in North Caucasus

New York, February 21, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s official harassment of the Vladikavkaz office of the London-based media training and reporting group, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR). Vladikavkaz police searched the local IWPR premises today, confiscating all computers and office documents, Valery Dzutsev, the institute’s Vladikavkaz coordinator, told CPJ.

Two police officers searched the office for over an hour in the early afternoon and took two computers, containing IWPR’s reporting materials and media-related projects, and all office documents—including sensitive staff-and source-related information—and a list of IWPR seminar participants, Dzutsev told CPJ.

Police told Dzutsev they were seizing the documents and equipment in connection with an investigation of alleged tax evasion and would return the documents and equipment once they have completed the investigation. Today’s search comes on the heels of a criminal case opened against IWPR for alleged tax evasion at the end of January, but the organization denies the charges.

IWPR in Vladikavkaz has covered the North Caucasus since 2002, including the southern republic of Chechnya. Local journalists told CPJ the charges are in retaliation for IWPR’s reporting in the region. The most recent articles IWPR in Vladikavkaz published covered the new appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as acting president of Chechnya and abuse of Chechen inmates in Russian prisons. Chechnya has been a topic of high sensitivity for the Kremlin, which has recently eliminated critical and independent information sources covering corruption, human rights abuses, and other socio-political issues in the volatile region. In January, the Russian Supreme Court liquidated the Nizhny Novgorod-based nongovernmental group Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and its information center, which published the monthly independent newspaper Pravo-Zashchita (Rights Defense).

“We are outraged by the authorities’ harassment and legal action against our colleagues at IWPR and call on Russian authorities to dismiss their criminal case, return all office equipment and documents, and allow IWPR to continue their work without further interference,” Executive Director Joel Simon said. “IWPR is an important source of information in a region where independent journalists routinely face violence, imprisonment, and official persecution.”

IWPR is currently in the process of registering as an NGO in accordance with a new law passed last year, Dzutsev told CPJ. It was unclear how the local law enforcement’s actions would affect the registration process.

This is not the first case of harassment against the Vladikavkaz office of IWPR. Last November, police investigated Dzutsev for alleged illegal business activities; after failing to prove any wrongdoing, they dropped the case.