MOSCOW Authorities forcibly evicted a prominent Russian human rights organization from its office in the early hours of Saturday in a raid its director said he believed was ordered by officials in President Vladimir Putin's administration.
For Human Rights is one of the best-known of the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which have been subjected to state inspections under a law Putin signed last year requiring NGOs with foreign funding to register as "foreign agents".
Western powers and rights groups view the legislation and inspections as aimed at intimidating activists and silencing criticism of Putin, who started a new six-year term in May 2012.
Putin, who has accused Western governments of using NGOs to spy on Russia and influence the political situation, says the law is needed to ensure transparency and that the checks are to enforce legal compliance.
The U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted on Saturday that "the USA is concerned about reports of the forcible seizure of the office of the NGO For Human Rights," adding that this was "another case of intimidating civil society".
Riot police and Moscow mayor's office representatives entered the building housing the office of For Human Rights at about 2 a.m. (2200 GMT Friday), ejecting at least six employees and supporters, said the group's director, Lev Ponomaryov.
"They treated us very roughly. I was dragged across the floor and then kicked," the 72-year-old said by telephone. He said he and five others were taken by ambulance to a first-aid clinic with bruises and scrapes, but none were in hospital.
A Moscow government property official, Maxim Gaman, told state-run news agency RIA on Friday that For Human Rights was being evicted because its lease on the city-owned premises had run out in February and had been terminated on May 27.
A police spokesman said officers had been sent to help city officials evict the group because its lease had run out.
About a dozen people gathered to protest outside the building on Saturday, undisturbed by the police.
FOREIGN AGENT LAW
Ponomaryov said the group had not received an eviction notice. He said the eviction may have been motivated by the group's refusal to give prosecutors documents they had demanded under the foreign agent law.
"I don't know if Putin is behind it but there must have been a decision at a very high level, in the Kremlin," he said. He also blamed Kremlin-appointed mayor Sergei Sobyanin for the eviction.
The presidential press service declined to comment, and Sobyanin's office could not immediately be reached.
The Moscow division of Russia's Interior Ministry on Saturday defended the actions of the police, saying the removal of the employees had been carried out by a private security firm, with police officers only involved in maintaining order outside the building.
Ponomaryov said he had expected to extend the lease as he had done in previous years, and that he was up to date on rent payments. "It's all entirely illegal," he said, adding that a court decision was required to carry out an eviction.
Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said city and law enforcement authorities had "tried to resolve a dispute between two parties unilaterally without involving the courts".
He said he had been barred from the scene of he raid in what he called a "crude violation of federal constitutional law", Interfax news agency reported.
Interfax also reported that a special meeting of the Kremlin's Human Rights Council would be held on Wednesday to discuss the incident, with Mayor Sobyanin and the heads of the Moscow police and prosecutors invited to attend.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jason Bush and Pravin Char)