Search and Intimidate

“Court approval of search warrant requests, 2007–first quarter of 2017. Red=number of warrant requests; gray=warrants issues. || In the past 11 years, Russian courts have approved, on average, 96.3% of search warrant requests. 67% of the requests concerned searches of private premises as part of surveillance operations, while 33% of searches were part of specific criminal investigations. ||Numbers and kinds of intimidation during so-called political searches (based on an analysis of 600 searches conducted in the homes of grassroots activists and members of persecuted organizations): violence, threats – 97; breaking down doors, forced entry through windows – 70; search performed at early hour of the day – 63; search conducted at homes of relatives – 47. Sources: International Agora and Russian Supreme Court Judicial Department.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

How Police Searches Have Become Tools of Political Intimidation
Agora International Says Privacy in Russia Has Nearly Vanished
Anastasiya Kornya
Vedomosti
March 29, 2018

Over the past ten and a half years, Russia courts have issued law enforcement agencies 1,976,201 warrants to search or investigate private premises. This number constitutes 96.32% of all such requests, according to calculations made by analysts at the Agora International Human Rights Group, which on Thursday will release a report entitled “Politically Motivated Police Searches: The Specter of Inviolability.” Often police investigators manage to obtain search warrants after the fact. During the period, the number of requests for search warrants has increased by nearly fifty percent. With respect to Russia’s 54 million households, this means that, over the last ten years, every twenty-seventh home in Russia has been searched.

The report’s authors note this is only the tip of the iceberg. Searches and inspections of non-residential premises, such as offices, warehouses, etc., do not require court warrants, and data on the number of such incursions has not been published by anyone.

The exception to this rule are law offices. Since April 2017, they have enjoyed greater formal protection than the residences of ordinary citizens. Law offices cannot be searched without a court order, and a representative of the regional bar association must be present during the search. Andrei Suchkov, vice-president of the Federal Bar Association, says they have not specially kept track of the statistics, but his sense is the number of searches in law offices has decreased during this time. There have been cases when police investigators tried to carry out searches without permission, but the courts have nevertheless mainly sided with lawyers, he notes.

Agora’s report reminds its readers that, in the early 1990s, the term “mask show,” meaning a police search carried out with backup from masked and armed special forces soldiers, came into common usage. Such searches were an effective means of coercing business partners and business rivals alike. Subsequently, the tool came to be used against the regime’s political opponents.

Recently, the practice of “serial” searches has been widespread. Thus, according to Leonid Volkov, head of Alexei Navalny’s presidential election campaign, police have raided the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny’s regional campaign offices no less than 150 times. Police have raided the offices of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia around fifty times over three years. Agrora’s analysts note the most frequent targets of large-scale, systematic searches have been members of opposition organizations and Crimean Tatars.

Another goal of police searches is the confiscation of electronic devices and subsequent unauthorized access to personal data, correspondence, and social media accounts. For example, during a June 2012 search of Alexei Navalny’s home, police seized a laptop, tablet computers, and mobile phone. Two weeks later, Navalny’s email and Twitter account were hacked.

In recent years, as Agora’s report underscores, police searches have been a vital element of campaigns against not only political opponents but also government officials. State-controlled national TV channels extensively covered searches in the homes of ex-regional governors Alexander Khoroshavin and Vyacheslav Gayzer, Federal Customs Service chief Andrei Belyaninov, and members of the Dagestani government.

Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, says they took an interest in the numbers of police searches after analyzing the state of privacy of correspondence and telephone conversations. If we recall that, on average, the courts have approved 98.35% of wiretapping warrants, we must admit judicial oversight in this area is illusory, and there is no privacy in Russia, claims Chikov.

Expanding the remit of law enforcement agencies to ever broader areas of daily life has transformed searches from investigative tools to signals broadcast by the regime and received by everyone involved in politics, government, and business, concurs political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov.

“What matters nowadays is not the outcome, but the search per se. We have been seeing an increased number of searches whose point is just that,” says Vinogradov.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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