Human Rights Watch's Director Denied a Visa

BloombergKenneth Roth
The head of international rights group Human Rights Watch has been denied a Russian visa, scuttling his plans to present a report accusing authorities of shackling nongovernmental organizations with burdensome regulations.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based group, had planned to present the report Wednesday in Moscow but said his visa application was rejected by consular officials.

"It is a good example of how the Russian government uses onerous regulations to harass and try to silence nongovernmental organizations that address sensitive issues," Roth said by telephone from New York.

It was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that a representative of the rights watchdog was denied a Russian visa, Roth said, adding that was only the second time he has been denied a visa anywhere during his tenure with the group. Nigeria denied him a visa in 1997, Roth said.

Staff from the group's Moscow bureau on Wednesday presented the 72-page report, titled, "Choking on Bureaucracy: State Curbs on Independent Civil Society Activism." The report criticizes recent legislation increasing government scrutiny of NGOs and broadening authorities' power to shut down them down.

Roth accused the Foreign Ministry of manipulating his visa application.

He said he submitted his visa application to the Russian consulate in New York two weeks ago through a visa agency often used by him and his colleagues. The agency erroneously indicated that he was coming to Russia as a tourist, and the visa was denied, Roth said.

Roth said he immediately reapplied for a business visa but was again denied. Consular officials told him that the Foreign Ministry was behind the decision, Roth said.

The ministry's press office declined to comment immediately, asking for a written inquiry. A faxed request went unanswered as of Wednesday evening.

"We had never had problems with visas for our foreign colleagues, and we never expected that the presentation of our report in Moscow would be surrounded by such a drama," said Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's local bureau.

Roth also had several meetings lined up with government officials, including Foreign Ministry officials, Lokshina said.

Alexander Cherkasov, deputy head of domestic human rights watchdog Memorial, said that, by denying Roth a visa, the government merely gave the critical report extra PR.

"Such an excessively nervous reaction toward rights activists is counterproductive, even by bureaucratic logic," Cherkasov said.

Numerous businessmen, journalists and human rights activists have been barred from entering the country, dating back to the early years of Vladimir Putin's presidency. Like other countries, however, Russia is under no obligation to explain its rationale for refusing or revoking visas. The Foreign Ministry and Federal Security Service, or FSB, routinely decline to comment on the cases.

A foreigner lacking necessary visa documents, proof of insurance valid in Russia or proof of sufficient funds to support his stay in Russia and subsequent exit from the country can be barred entry visas, according to the federal immigration law.

A foreigner can also be barred if his presence in Russia has been deemed "undesirable" by one of eight federal agencies: the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the FSB, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Defense Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service or the now-defunct Health Ministry.

In December, Natalya Morar, a Moldovan citizen who writes for Moscow-based magazine The New Times, was refused entry at Domodedovo Airport after returning from a business trip to Israel. Just days earlier The New Times had published Morar's article claiming that the presidential administration had a secret multimillion-dollar fund that it used to finance parties during the State Duma elections.

Moldovan citizens do not need visas to enter Russia. But last month Russian diplomats in Chisinau said she was banned from entering the country because she represented a security threat.

Morar's Moscow-based lawyer, Yury Kostanov, has filed suit with the Meshchansky District Court demanding that the FSB elaborate on exactly why she was banned from the country, Morar told journalists Tuesday in Chisinau.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for March 17, Interfax reported.