Manana Aslamazyan Wins Appeal in Russian Constitutional Court

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A cautious hooray! The Russian Constitutional Court has ruled unconstitutional the law under which Russian authorities had been threatening my long-time colleague and dear friend Manana Aslamazyan with jail time. Manana spent 15 years creating and leading a terrific organization originally called Internews Russia and later renamed Educated Media Foundation (EMF), where I was privileged to work for several years. The organization’s mission was to help the non-state media outside Moscow, especially the several hundred private local TV stations that sprang up in the early ’90s, develop and grow.

Year by year, during the Putin administration, everyone supporting independent thinking among journalists came to feel that they were viewed as an enemy of the state. In the xenophobic atmosphere that Putin cultivated, the fact that many of the grants that supported the work of EMF/Internews Russia over the years came from the US Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation and other suspect groups, multiplied the effect. So when an excuse was found (or manufactured) to bring criminal charges against Manana for accidentally violating a customs regulation (it could and should have been an administrative issue with a small fine at most), Russian authorities launched a massive investigation not only of Manana but of the EMF.

In April of last year, 20 police officers arrived at my old office, and, in a search that was clearly illegal, seized the organization’s every financial and administrative document and all the computer servers. Shortly afterward, journalists in Tomsk launched a campaign to have Russian journalists sign a letter of protest to Putin, and impressively more than 2000 of them did, but the Kremlin didn’t even respond. Last May, as the investigation showed no signs of letting up, Manana left for Paris rather than risk arrest and the board of the Educated Media Foundation voted to close the organization.

Meanwhile, since the ordeal began, Manana’s legal team has been fighting the charges in every way and in court they could, including preparing to submit a case to the European Court of Human Rights. Each time there was another court date set, those of us following the case closely felt there was hope. Friends who sat in the session would report that Manana’s lawyers had been perfect, the investigator’s team disorganized and clearly in the wrong. The judge would promise a decision the next day (always the next day). And each and every time, the judge would use some contorted logic in order to find for the prosecution. Sometimes observers noted that the judges themselves seemed embarrassed.

Despite the ruling, it is clear that the Educated Media Foundation will not be allowed to re-open any time soon, and Russia’s broadcast media will continue to feel all kinds of pressure to demonstrate their “loyalty” and “patriotism.” So today’s decision feels like a victory, but a small one. We can only hope it’s a sign of better things to come.

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2 Comments

  1. Russia’s political trajectory - ‘promising’ or ominous? | Democracy Digest

    July 11, 2008 @ 10:21 am

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    […] by the recent Constitutional Court decision to dismiss charges of currency smuggling made against Manana Aslamazyan, head of Internews Russia’s successor organization, which received foreign funding, support […]

  2. Criminalizing dissent | Democracy Digest

    July 18, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    2

    […] Russia, Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky was prosecuted on grounds of tax evasion and fraud, while Manana Aslamazyan, head of Internews Russia’s successor organization, last month fought off spurious charges of […]