U.S.-funded media organization shut down in Russia

A U.S.-funded non-governmental media organization in Russia has been effectively shut down and its director has left the country in the face of criminal prosecution her lawyers said Friday was part of a government campaign against NGOs.

Investigators have pounced on a minor customs infraction committed by Manana Aslamazyan, director of the Educated Media Foundation, using it to shut down the respected media training and development organization and frighten other civil society groups and journalists, the lawyers said.

The prosecution of Aslamazyan and pressure on the foundation, which receives funding from the U.S. government, follows repeated claims by President Vladimir Putin and other officials that foreign governments use NGOs to weaken Russia and undermine its leadership.

The Moscow-based group's troubles began in January after Aslamazyan, returning from a trip abroad, brought cash worth more than US$10,000 (EUR7,400) into Russia without declaring it at customs, as required by law.

She has been charged with smuggling and authorities are considering prosecuting the fund's leadership on money laundering charges, according to one of her lawyers, Viktor Parshutkin.

In April, police raided the foundation's offices, seizing equipment and documents and subsequently freezing its bank accounts, prompting it to suspend its activities.

Parshutkin said he believes the Kremlin is behind Aslamazyan's prosecution.

"This entire affair is motivated exclusively by politics. Through criminal investigation they have organized the public whipping to make other NGOs that receive money from foreign governments stand at attention and frighten them," he said.

He suggested the foundation, which trained and developed Russian provincial media, was targeted "to send a signal to journalists before the elections that they are all under the czar's eye - that if somebody tries to do something independent, they will be dealt with."

Russia is to hold parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next March to replace Putin, who is expected to name a favored successor. Potential Kremlin-backed candidates receive lavish coverage on the three main nationwide channels, all controlled by the state, while government opponents are usually ignored or cast in a negative light.

In an open letter last week thanking her supporters, Aslamazyan said she had accepted an offer to work as a consultant for an international organization with offices in the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe. Parshutkin said he and another lawyer had advised her to leave the country and that she is living in Paris.

In the letter, Aslamazyan said she would live abroad, continue to pay taxes in Russia and "wait until a court finally figures out why my personal mistake, for which I am ready to accept a fair and appropriate penalty, became the excuse for suspending the work of a large organization that brought a lot of benefit to the country."

Aslamazyan could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. In April, she told The Associated Press that the foundation had received about US$1 million (EUR740,000) from the U.S. Agency for International Development last year, and that other sources of grants included a European group and income from paid programs.

USAID says it spent about US$38 million (EUR28 million) last year on projects to strengthen democracy in Russia, including nearly US$5 million (EUR3.7 million) to support media freedom and freedom of information. It listed Internews Russia, the legal predecessor of the Educated Media Foundation, as a principal partner in that program.