Piracy Charges to Pressure Critics

The Moscow Times reports on yet another tactic the Kremlin is using to crack down on critics.

A series of raids in recent months suggests that the authorities may have found an innovative way to crack down on critics: allegations of using pirated software. Most recently, the high-tech crimes unit of the Nizhny Novgorod police raided the offices of two nongovernmental organizations, the Tolerance Support Foundation and the Nizhny Novgorod Human Rights Society, as well as the local edition of Novaya Gazeta, an outspoken opposition newspaper, on Aug. 30 and 31.

On the pretext of searching for unlicensed computer programs, police confiscated four computers from the Tolerance Support Foundation, crippling the organization’s work, and six from Novaya Gazeta, preventing the paper from releasing its next issue. “Our work has stopped because of the confiscation of the computers,” said Oksana Chelysheva, head of the city’s branch of the Tolerance Support Foundation, which seeks to improve relations between different ethnic groups. Similar raids took place in Samara in May, when police seized computers from the offices of the local edition of Novaya Gazeta and an NGO that was helping to organize an anti-Kremlin street protest.

The same month, police in Tula confiscated a computer from the Popular Democratic Union, the political movement that supports the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Police said the Tula and Samara raids were justified because the computers had unlicensed software installed on them. “There have been at least 10 such cases,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, a think tank that tracks political groups.

Confiscated computers can be held for one month, but property wasn’t returned for several months in the cases we are aware of. Intellectual property piracy of all sorts is rampant in Russia, but as with most laws, enforcement is applied selectively. Other Russia activists and offices have been spuriously investigated for everything from carrying counterfeit currency to possessing pirated software.