Court tosses out charges against journalism foundation director

New York, June 3, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the Russian Constitutional Court’s verdict on May 27, which proclaimed criminal charges brought against the former head of the now-shuttered Educated Media Foundation (EMF) to be unconstitutional. The court specified that the case should be tried in a civil court.

Manana Aslamazian, director of the journalism training organization EMF, faced up to five years in prison for failing to declare foreign currency when returning to Moscow from Paris in January 2007. The foundation was then forced to shut down after police raided its office and effectively paralyzed the organization.

The EMF, the successor to Internews Russia, has been under investigation for alleged tax evasion since February by the Moscow branch of the Interior Ministry’s investigative committee. Prosecutors say the EMF failed to pay 1.5 million rubles (US$62,170) in taxes—a crime punishable by up to six years in prison.

“We welcome the court ruling in favor of our colleague Manana Aslamazian,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Though a signal of long-awaited justice, it is still a partial one. We urge the authorities to finally drop this fabricated case.”

Aslamazian and her lawyer said they believe the case being built against the foundation has been made up to go after Aslamazian—as a nonprofit educational organization the EMF was tax exempt according to Russian laws. “This second case is not against the EMF, which does not exist anymore,” Parshutkin told CPJ. “They started it to imprison Manana.”

Customs officers detained Aslamazian at the Moscow airport in January 2007, after she failed to declare 2,964 euros (US$4,024 at the time) over the allowed cash limit—US$10,550. Charged with smuggling, Aslamazian said the violation was unintentional. Customs police confiscated all the money she was carrying—a personal debt she had collected from a friend in Paris, she said.

In December, authorities issued a federal arrest warrant for Aslamazian, who fled Russia to avoid imprisonment. Aslamazian’s lawyer, Viktor Parshutkin, told CPJ they had appealed to Russia’s Constitutional Court to review the criminal case that had been opened against her in 2007.

Aslamazian told CPJ that she did not hear from authorities for three months, until the raid on the EMF on April 18. Police officers searched the office for 11 hours and seized the organization’s financial records, local press reported at the time. The following month, Moscow fiscal authorities ordered that the EMF’s bank accounts be frozen.

In late 2006, Internews Russia joined with Educated Media Foundation, a group founded by private Russian individuals from the television, education, culture, science, and business sectors, according to an EMF statement. The foundation became the official legal successor of Internews Russia in January 2007. The group said it received several grants—all of which were officially declared—to fund its 2007 activities; they included aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Internews Europe, and the Ford Foundation.

While Aslamazian told CPJ she is happy about the court ruling, she said she does not feel safe returning to Russia in light of the tax evasion case against the organization.