Civil Society Picks Up a Rare Win

Aslamazian_M0629.gifManana Aslamazyan does not cast a very threatening image. The Russian civil society organizer is intelligently calm, soft-spoken, and bears the distinctive eyewear of a schoolteacher, not your prototype of a dangerous social agitator. Perhaps for this reason so many of us were appalled by the Kremlin’s unfair persecution of Aslamazyan and her organization, the Educated Media Foundation, a group which has helped to train more than 15,000 broadcast journalists in the best practices of the trade. (A good background of this case has been done by the New York Review of Books). Last January Aslamazyan entered Russia carrying €9,500 ($15,000) without properly declaring it to customs – something that brought about swift criminal charges of smuggling in an effort that was largely perceived to be a pretext for shutting down her organization. During her forced exile in France, she resigned from her post at EMF, and told the press: “It seems that there’s a common attitude of suspicion toward nonprofit organizations financed abroad. We fell victim to this attitude. But we clearly worked within the legal structure of the Russian Federation, and we were extremely careful and accurate with all our documents and the registration of our funding.” However this week Aslamazyan was able to win an important court victory, as Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that her arrest warrant was illegal. “The criminal case against Aslamazyan will be closed. She can come right now. No one is going to go after her. The arrest warrant will be cancelled,said Irina Dudkina, head of the investigative committee’s press service. However, reports note that the media training organization has been successfully eliminated, and that Aslamazyan has no plans to revive EMF. More details after the cut.

The Wall Street Journal has some interesting comments from media activists, as some call it a “landmark” ruling, while others aren’t as optimistic.

A lawyer pointed to Tuesday’s ruling by the Constitutional Court as a sign that Russia’s crackdown on dissent and independent groups is easing under its new president, Dmitry Medvedev. But other activists were more cautious, noting that signs of a thaw are few.Funded in part by grants from governments in the U.S. and Europe, Educated Media conducted educational programs for Russian journalists at a time when the Kremlin has been tightening control over the media and nongovernmental groups, especially foreign-backed ones.Educated Media shut down about a year ago after authorities investigating the smuggling case seized records and computers. Facing criminal charges, Ms. Aslamazyan fled Russia. Early this year, tax inspectors opened a criminal tax-evasion probe into Educated Media.Dozens of prominent Russian journalists who had trained with Ms. Aslamazyan’s group appealed publicly to Russian authorities to intervene in the case. Until Tuesday, there had been no apparent response.Tuesday’s ruling struck down as unconstitutional the law that allowed prosecutors to charge Ms. Aslamazyan with criminal smuggling instead of a purely administrative violation of failing to declare the cash she brought in. Ms. Aslamazyan said she didn’t realize the money she was carrying exceeded the $10,000 threshold for declaration.In a telephone interview from Paris, Ms. Aslamazyan welcomed the ruling and said she hoped to return to Russia as soon as the criminal charges against her are formally dropped.Viktor Parshutkin, Ms. Aslamazyan’s lawyer, called the ruling “a landmark,” adding, “we have a new president now who didn’t serve in the FSB [security service] and has liberal views.”Other observers weren’t as sanguine. “It’s a good sign,” said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media-freedom group. “But the main result was still achieved — the organization was destroyed.”Ms. Aslamazyan said she doesn’t plan to revive Educated Media, whose staff have found other jobs.Though she called the tax-evasion allegations against the group “absurd,” she said there is no indication they will be resolved soon.