UPDATE 4:32 p.m. EDT: The Moscow city property department has invited Amnesty International to a meeting Monday and says the eviction must have been a mix-up. The invitation was extended after the head of the Kremlin’s human rights council discussed the situation with President Vladamir Putin, Reuters reported.
“I would say this was promising and we look forward to the meeting and resolving this issue,” Dalhuisen said, according to Reuters.
Employees of human rights group Amnesty International showed up to work in Moscow Wednesday, only to find the office locks changed, power cut off and an eviction notice from city authorities. After more than a day of attempting to talk with authorities, Amnesty said there is still no official response.
“Due to violations of the payment terms, a claim, informing of the need to repay the debt within one month, was forwarded to the organization,” Moscow city officials said in a statement, according to government-run media network, Russia Today. Officials told independent TV channel Dozhd they terminated the lease when Amnesty ignored the debt notice, adding that “the presence of third persons in it was illegal.”
But the director of Amnesty’s office in Russia, Sergei Nikitin, said on Twitter that the charges are “ludicrous” and that his office has “carefully” paid rent in full and on time for 20 years.
“We do not know what prompted Moscow authorities to prevent our staff from accessing our offices – an unwelcome surprise for which we received no prior warning,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said in press release Wednesday. “We are 100 percent confident that we fulfilled all our obligations as tenants.”
Despite calling the number on the eviction notice and repeated other attempts to talk with authorities, Dalhuisen said on Twitter Thursday that they have yet to receive an official response.
“Starting to look like a deliberate move to obstruct our work,” Dalhuisen tweeted.
One day before the eviction, Amnesty condemned the Russian Federation for the alleged torture of prisoners of conscience after a Russian newspaper published letters from political prisoner Ildar Dadin. Amnesty has also been vocal about civilian casualties and other human rights violations from Russian forces in Aleppo, Syria.
Nikitin and Dalhuisen posted copies of the office’s bank transfers for April and October rent on social media as proof of payment.
President Vladamir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied any knowledge of the incident. However, Amnesty’s eviction falls in line with moves by the Kremlin to nudge out nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) since Putin’s return to power.
In 2012, Russia passed the “foreign agents law” in which all NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in “political activities” must register as “foreign agents” – verbiage with strong undertones of Cold War-era espionage. As of last month, 147 NGOs have had to label themselves on all documents as “foreign agents,” according to Human Rights Watch, and are subject to frequent audits, which the organizations say hinder their efforts.
Last year, the Kremlin took it one step further, passing a law that allows any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” to be banned on national security grounds.
“This is but the latest case in a larger pattern of restrictive measures negatively affecting human rights defenders in Russia,” Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights wrote on Facebook.
“For the time being, the reasons for the imposition of this measure appear to relate to the continuation of the rental agreement. Regardless of the reason, the sealing of the office and changing of the locks represent a disproportionate measure that currently impedes the work of this important human rights organization,” Muižnieks said.
“We are working to resolve the situation as swiftly as possible and very much hope there is a simple administrative explanation for this setback to our work,” Dalhuisen said.