Russia blocks website of group that tracks political arrests

International

An iPhone screen shows a Telegram account of OVD-Info, prominent legal aid group in Russia that tracks political arrests in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. A Russian organization that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid to detainees says government regulators have blocked its website. OVD-Info said in a tweet on Saturday that it wasn’t formally notified about the action by Russia’s internet and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian organization that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid to detainees said Saturday that government regulators blocked its website, the latest move in a months-long crackdown on independent media and human rights organizations.

OVD-Info reported that Russia’s internet and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, blocked the group’s website. The organization said in a tweet that it wasn’t formally notified about the decision and doesn’t know the reason for the action beyond that it was ordered by a court outside Moscow on Monday.

The website was unavailable to Russian internet users on Saturday and was listed on the government’s registry of banned web pages. In light of the move, OVD-Info urged supporters to follow its pages on a number of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Russian social network VK and messaging app Telegram.

In comments to the Interfax news agency, Roskomnadzor said the website was blocked because, according to the court ruling, it was involved in “propaganda of terrorism and extremism” by containing materials that “justify actions of extremist and terrorist groups.”

The agency said social media platforms have been told to remove the group’s accounts.

OVD-Info co-founder Grigory Okhotin rejected the accusations in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday.

“Naturally, we are sure that we are not justifying extremism or terrorism,” he said. “Of course we write about such cases, this is our job, but it is not justifying (extremism or terrorism).”

Okhotin said the ruling to block the website came as a surprise, even though the group knew the prosecutor’s office in Lukhovitsy, a town 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Moscow, had opened an investigation of some kind.

“Our lawyer went there, but they refused to provide documents or to explain anything about the substance of the case, even though they summoned him themselves,” Okhotin said. “We, of course, didn’t know that it would get to court so quickly — which we haven’t been invited to, by the way — and to blocking of the website over accusations of justifying terrorism and extremism.”

OVD-Info gained prominence for its meticulous tracking and counting of arrests at street protests in Russia. Activists first started the practice during mass protests triggered by a 2011 Russian parliamentary election tainted by numerous reports of voter fraud and then formed a group that has continued the work over the years.

The data has been indispensable to news outlets over the years as Russian authorities largely kept quiet or underplayed the scale of mass arrests at protests and demonstrations.

OVD-Info operates as a legal aid group as well, dispatching lawyers to help detained protesters at police stations and in courts. In September, a Sweden-based international human rights organization awarded OVD-Info its Civil Rights Defender of the Year award.

That same month Russian authorities designated the group as a “foreign agent” — a label that comes with excessive government scrutiny and strong pejorative connotations that can discredit recipients. OVD-Info’s founders vowed to continue the organization’s work despite the designation.

Russian authorities have mounted pressure on rights groups, media outlets and individual journalists in recent months, naming dozens as foreign agents. Some were declared as “undesirable” — a label that outlaws organizations in Russia — or accused of links to “undesirable” groups.

On Friday, Russia’s Justice Ministry added two more rights groups to the registry of foreign agents: Coming Out and Revers, which advocate for LGBT rights and provide assistance to Russia’s embattled LGBT community.

Russian law mandates a non-governmental organization, a media outlet, an informal movement or an individual to be listed as a foreign agent for having received foreign funding — even a small donation from a foreign national counts — and engaging in loosely defined political activity.

OVD-Info, together with other rights groups, launched a campaign in September to abolish the “foreign agents” law. As of late December, more than 240 organizations and over 260,000 individuals had signed a petition that describes the law as “discriminatory and unlawful.”

OVD-Info submitted the signatures to Russia’s lower parliament house, the State Duma.

Okhotin called the website’s obstruction “a new round of pressure on us and on the civic society.” He said he thinks OVD-Info was targeted because of its prominence and its campaign against the “foreign agents” legislation.

“We’re very big, we’re very visible, we’re supported by a huge amount of people in Russia,” Okhotin said, adding that more than 100,000 Russians support OVD-Info with donations.

He said the group would continue to inform Russians about political repression despite the website being unavailable to viewers.

“We will definitely find some form or another to keep the public informed,” he told the AP.

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Daniel Kozin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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