MOSCOW Amnesty International, a campaign group which has accused the Kremlin of violating human rights with its bombing campaign in Syria, was evicted from its Moscow office on Wednesday.
The Moscow city government, from which Amnesty leased the premises in the Russian capital's center, said the group was behind on the rent. But Amnesty said it had documents to prove it was up to date with payments.
Staff at the Amnesty Moscow office told Reuters they arrived at work to find the locks had been changed, official seals had been placed over the doors, and the electricity had been cut off.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe director, said the eviction may be part of an official crackdown on civil society groups that criticize the Kremlin, but he said there were other possible explanations.
In a statement sent to Reuters, the Moscow city property department said it had sent written warnings to Amnesty that it was in rent arrears.
"This complaint was ignored by the unscrupulous tenant," the statement said. The department said it voided Amnesty's lease on the grounds that the tenant was violating the terms of the rental agreement.
"In this connection, the premises were closed and sealed off," the statement said.
Amnesty's Dalhuisen said: "This bizarre claim is simply not true." He said the group received no warning and had documents showing the property was paid for up to and including October.
CIVIL SOCIETY SQUEEZED
"As an organization, along with others, that has criticized the Russian authorities, it is possible this fits into the context of the squeeze on civil society," Dalhuisen said in a telephone interview.
"It is equally possible, however, that this is a genuine administrative mix-up, or that other interests are at play within the municipality. At this stage I do not want to speculate until we have had the opportunity to try to resolve this with the municipal authorities."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was unaware of Amnesty's office problems.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said he had seen reports about the eviction, and "obviously we're concerned about it." He said Washington would monitor the dispute to see how it developed over time.
Amnesty, which was founded in London, frequently criticizes the Russian authorities over what it says are human rights violations. It has, in particular, alleged that Russia and its allies have killed large numbers of civilians with air strikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo. Moscow denies that.
Under President Vladimir Putin's rule in Russia, rights groups that criticize the Kremlin and receive foreign funding have come under growing pressure.
Kremlin officials have accused some foreign-backed civil society groups of working on behalf of Western governments to foment unrest and replicate the revolutions that forced out pro-Russian leaders in several ex-Soviet states.
As part of an official crackdown, some non-governmental organizations have been designated as "foreign agents," which makes them subject to intense scrutiny from officials.
One of the groups given that label was Memorial, Russia's oldest human rights group, which was founded to campaign for the rights of Soviet-era political prisoners, and Golos, which monitors elections for potential ballot-rigging.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Catherine Evans and Leslie Adler)