WASHINGTON, August 7 (RIA Novosti) – Local authorities near Sochi, Russia have harassed, bullied and filed criminal charges against activists and journalists who have criticized preparations for the upcoming 2014 Winter Games, international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday.
In a new report, HRW said it had “documented how authorities harassed and pursued criminal charges against journalists, apparently in retaliation for their legitimate reporting” about problems with Olympic preparations.
The group also reported “government efforts to intimidate” those who investigated or spoke out against abuse of migrant workers, the health impact of Olympic construction projects, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes to accommodate Olympic building projects.
Russian officials have insisted that the Sochi Olympics are being prepared with scrupulous adherence to all international norms and have rejected criticism from HRW in the past.
On the migrant labor issue, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said earlier this year that while isolated abuses may have occurred they were not part of a broader trend and were not representative of Russia's record in preparing to host the games.
"It would be impossible not to have them [incidents of abuse] with so many [construction sites]," Kozak told journalists in February. "But they are not taking place on a large scale ... If there were mass cases [of abuse], I would know."
The report details specific complaints about mistreatment alleged by journalists and activists in Sochi over the past several years.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under the Olympic Charter.
“One of the non-negotiable requirements of hosting the Olympics is to allow press freedom, and the authorities’ attempts to silence critics are in clear violation of that principle,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia programs.
“The IOC says it’s committed to resolving these issues, but if it is, they should be reaching out to the Russian authorities to say, ‘this is not okay.’ And yes, they have flagged some of these abuses but then just accept all too often whatever the official response is,” Rachel Denber, HRW’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told RIA Novosti.
“The truth is these Games have been plagued by a number of problems, and the solution is not to silence the messengers, it’s to fix the problems,” she added.
(Updates earlier story with background, Kozak quotes on migrant labor issue.)