Human Rights Activists Going to Court Over British Council

ST. PETERSBURG -- Human rights campaigners are suing the government for closing down the British Council's regional offices, one of the activists said Wednesday.

Russia demanded last week that the council, the cultural arm of the British Embassy, close its two regional offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which it said were operating illegally.

"I brought the suit in the Syktyvkar city court today," said Ernest Mezak of the Komi Republic branch of the human rights watchdog Memorial. "We believe that none of the Russian Foreign Ministry complaints announced in its demarche against the British Council had any legal grounds."

Russian courts rarely hand down rulings against the government.

Komi, an oil-rich northern region that was home to Gulag camps under Stalin, does not have a British Council office.

Mezak said the move to shut the British Council offices violated "the rights of all Russian citizens to the free use of all cultural institutions, which can be protected by a court under Russian law."

Last week, most British Council regional staff were summoned for questioning by the Federal Security Service. Some were also visited at their homes by Interior Ministry officials.

Britain has warned Russia that any attempt to intimidate staff of its cultural arm is "completely unacceptable."

A Foreign Ministry official on Monday linked possible talks on the status of the British Council's regional offices to a resumption by Britain of talks on counterterrorism and entry visas.

Those discussions were suspended during the diplomatic fallout following the murder of Kremlin critic and emigre Alexander Litvinenko in which Russia refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the man Britain suspects of killing him. Lugovoi denies any involvement.