Activists In Sochi Say They're Harassed For Speaking Out

Social activists say they're being silenced by local authorities for calling attention to problems such as corruption and environmental degradation related to the Winter Olympics.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, as the world keeps an eye on events in Sochi, social activists there say they're being harassed for speaking out about the less-savory aspects of these games. Some activists have been jailed on what critics say are trumped-up charges designed to keep them out of the public eye during the competition. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Human rights activists and environmentalists say they've been harassed by Sochi authorities and Russia's Federal Security Service. Simyon Simonov is coordinator for a project on migrant workers' rights in Sochi, run by the human rights group Memorial. When NPR interviewed him back in June, he was helping migrant workers from Central Asian countries file complaints against employers who lured them into working under slave-like conditions.

SIMYON SIMONOV: (Through translator) I learned about the violations of migrant workers' rights - not just individuals, but hundreds of cases. These people lived in terrible conditions. They didn't get their salaries, and their passports were taken away.

FLINTOFF: These are all violations of Russia's labor laws, but when Simonov brought them to the local prosecutor's office, he was the one who came under suspicion.

SIMONOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Investigators searched his files and questioned him. He says they were especially interested in what he'd been saying to reporters. Later, Simonov says he was detained and warned that if he kept calling attention to migrant labor problems, he might be prosecuted himself. Adding insult to injury, he says he was twice denied spectator access to the Winter Games venues that many of his clients helped to build.

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FLINTOFF: Damelya Aitkhozhina is a researcher for Amnesty International who's been investigating many of the activists' claims. Aitkhozhina says advocates have been vocal about environmental violations during the preparations for the Winter Games, including deforestation in a national park, illegal dumping of construction waste and pollution of local water supplies. She says authorities have targeted one group in particular: the Ecological Watch for the North Caucuses.

DAMELYA AITKHOZHINA: Its activists have been detained briefly, or even administrative detention of five to 15 days on what we consider to be trumped-up charges following the manifestly unfair trials.

FLINTOFF: One activist was given a 15-day jail term for allegedly swearing in public, a rarely enforced misdemeanor. He was not allowed to confront the purported witness against him. Another activist left his apartment to find that his car had been vandalized. When he called the police to investigate, they arrested him. A judge gave him five days in jail for allegedly disobeying a police officer. Olga Noskovets says the authorities tailor their pressure to the individual activists, so it has maximum impact.

OLGA NOSKOVETS: (Through translator) So, if a person runs a business, they put pressure on the business. If a person has a family, they pressure the family members.

FLINTOFF: Noskovets is a member of the Ecological Watch Group, and also of the opposition Yabloka party.

NOSKOVETS: (Through translator) Many people fear that when the games are over and all the foreign journalists leave the city, we'll be left one-on-one with the local authorities, and that's a serious problem.

FLINTOFF: The result, she says, could be a far harsher revenge than anything the activists have experienced so far. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Sochi.

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