* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Tweet Widget Facebook Like Email Russian authorities should immediately grant bail to Roman Khabarov, a former police officer and prominent human rights defender in Voronezh.
(Moscow) - Russian authorities should immediately grant bail to Roman Khabarov, a former police officer and prominent human rights defender in Voronezh. On February 12, 2014, police in Voronezh, 530 kilometers south of Moscow, arrested Khabarov on charges of being a member of an organized criminal group that allegedly operated a network of unlawful gambling spots in the region. On February 14 a local court ruled that Khabarov should be detained until the end of March, pending a second court hearing on pretrial restrictions. "There are strong grounds to believe that the authorities arrested Khabarov in retaliation for his activism," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. "He should be released on bail immediately and permitted to mount a rigorous defense and continue his human rights work." As a police officer, Khabarov was openly critical of the government's law enforcement policies and cooperated with human rights activists. In 2011, apparently as a result of his outspokenness, Khabarov was dismissed from the police force after 18 years of service. He started working as a legal consultant, which he can do because he holds a degree from the Higher School of Police, and provided free legal consulting services to victims of police abuse. Khabarov became a prominent civil society activist, exposing torture and other grave abuses by local law enforcement officials. He also became an advocate for fair elections. Between 2011 and 2013, Khabarov participated in numerous protest rallies in Voronezh and Moscow, including the May 6, 2012 mass protest at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on the eve of Vladimir Putin's presidential inauguration. On February 14, 2014, at the court hearing on pretrial restrictions, Khabarov's lawyer requested bail, informing the judge that Khabarov's family was prepared to pay it. Prominent Russian rights groups, including the Public Verdict Foundation, the Moscow School of Civic Education, and a prominent Russian film director, vouched for Khabarov. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, also petitioned the judge by fax to release Khabarov before trial in light of his significant record of civic activism. Nevertheless, the court decided to keep Khabarov in pretrial custody. Of the other 11 people charged together with Khabarov and allegedly forming the "criminal group," only one other person - the group's alleged leader - was sent to a pretrial prison. The remaining suspects were placed under house arrest or subjected to travel restrictions. In October 2011, soon after his dismissal from the police force, Khabarov gave an explosive media interview exposing police corruption, torture, and other abuses that he alleged were widespread in the police force. In response, the chief of police for Voronezh told the media that Khabarov "will be held responsible for his words." Following the interview, the authorities tried to bring libel charges. Investigators interrogated Khabarov, but the libel case fell apart. Then, in November 2011, the police accused Khabarov of "abuse of official position" alleging that he had unlawfully appropriated several air conditioners. At the time, Khabarov told the media that former colleagues had informed him that the police leadership was seeking retaliation for his interview exposing abuses. Investigation into the air conditioner case went on for approximately a year and a half and was finally closed for lack of evidence in June 2013. In December 2012 the investigators working on the case of alleged mass riots at the Bolotnaya Square searched Khabarov's apartment in Voronezh in connection with his participation in a summer camp where "mass riots" had been allegedly discussed and planned. The search yielded no results. Khabarov's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that his client had been approached for legal advice by the people who are accused of running illegal slot machine parlors in Voronezh. As Khabarov explained to his lawyer, the men had approached him for a consultation, but he had no further involvement with their operation. "It is evident that the authorities have been after Khabarov for a long time, trying to frighten him into silence," Lokshina said. "His arrest comes across as another stark example of the political manipulation of justice in Russia."