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Cablegate: Memorial St. Petersburg Raided

P 051546Z DEC 08
FM AMCONSUL ST PETERSBURG
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2642
INFO AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY
AMCONSUL VLADIVOSTOK PRIORITY
AMCONSUL YEKATERINBURG PRIORITY
AMCONSUL ST PETERSBURG PRIORITY

UNCLAS ST PETERSBURG 000189


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: RS PGOV PHUM
SUBJECT: MEMORIAL ST. PETERSBURG RAIDED

SENSITIVE - Not for internet or other dissemination outside the
USG.


1. (SBU) SUMMARY: In a December 4 raid on the headquarters of
Memorial, an organization dedicated to the documenting and
exposing of communist-era human rights violations, the local St.
Petersburg prosecutor's office confiscated documents and
computer drives while providing thin justification for its
actions. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) Armed and masked "investigators" arrived at Memorial's
St. Petersburg research center at midday Thursday. They sealed
the office and disconnected the phone lines, though employees
present at the time were able to use their cell phones to
contact others before their phones were confiscated. At 3:30, a
local television crew arrived at the scene, but was forcefully
ejected from the building. Consulate staffers at the site at
4:00 noted a small group of press and supporters. The
investigators remained in the office until 6:00 p.m., when they
departed through the rear entrance in an apparent effort to
avoid the press. The investigators took with them eleven of
thirteen Memorial computer hard drives, which contained the
group's 20 years' worth of archival records of communist human
rights violations as well as financial records. There are no
off-site backup copies of these files.

3. (SBU) The raid was ostensibly conducted as an investigation
into a potential violation of hate-crime laws. In June, 2007,
local newspaper Novy Peterburg printed an article, "Here Comes
the Real Candidate," written by Konstantin Chernyayev, which the
prosecutor's office claims incited social and ethnic hatred.
Novy Peterburg is strongly nationalistic, regularly publishing
anti-government articles, but is not considered to be amongst
the newspapers which are generally supportive of human rights
organizations. Both Memorial and Novy Peterburg deny any ties
with each other. With the cited article being unavailable, post
is unable to independently confirm or deny what connection, if
any, Memorial had with the offending article.

4. (U) Memorial St. Petersburg is among the most respected
human rights organizations in the city, amongst both Russians
and the international community, and has always been extremely
scrupulous in avoiding illegal activity of any kind. Its
historical documents and the information in its archives are
invaluable sources for historians and social scientists
worldwide. The St. Petersburg branch is not involved in the
national Memorial initiatives related to Chechnya and the North
Caucasus which have drawn official ire in other parts of Russia.

5. (SBU) There have been various speculative reasons mentioned
by the press and human rights groups members with respect to the
real reason behind the raid. First, and most generically, the
raid could be an attempt to generally intimidate the human
rights and political opposition groups as they prepare for the
upcoming Solidarnost meeting (December 6), Human Rights
Conference (December 10), and Dissenters March (December 14) -
all events which will challenge authorities. Secondly, the raid
could have been targeted specifically at Memorial member
Aleksander Margolis. Margolis, whose working office is located
at the same Memorial premises, is a well-known and vocal critic
of the local government's construction policies, which often
involve the demolition of historical buildings. Thirdly, the
raid could have been conducted in retaliation for Memorial
having recently hosted a viewing of the movie "Rebellion.
Litvinenko's Case" - a movie which, to put it mildly, depicts
Russian governmental authorities in an unfavorable light.
Finally, without its financial records, Memorial will have great
difficulty submitting its annual reports as required by the
Russian authorities. This will hinder Memorial's effectiveness,
as the group will be forced to tie up a good amount of its
resources re-creating those records to meet government
requirements rather than continuing onwards with its researches.

6. (SBU) Post has sent a letter to the St. Petersburg Human
Rights Ombudsman, copying the local branch of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and the City Committee for External Affairs,
expressing our concern over the incident, questioning the
rationale given for it, and looking for assurances that
Memorial's confiscated property will be returned promptly and in
good order.

7. (SBU) COMMENT. The prosecutor's office's citation of the
hate-crime laws and the connection to an 18-month old article as
justification for the raid is transparently disingenuous. The
most likely explanation behind the raid is a combination of some
or all the reasons cited above. Memorial presented a
target-rich environment, which enabled authorities to accomplish
many goals with just a single raid: intimidation of opposition
groups, hindrance of independent human rights organizations'
operations, and retaliation for presumed anti-government
activities. END COMMENT.

Gwaltney

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