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Russia moves to expel American human rights activist

Andrew Roth in Moscow
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Yelena Afonina/TASS</span>
Photograph: Yelena Afonina/TASS

A prominent US human rights activist faces expulsion from Russia as it ratchets up pressure on non-governmental organisations fighting abuses, particularly those who receive financial support from abroad.

Vanessa Kogan, director of the Justice Initiative project, told the Guardian that Russian migration officials had revoked her residency permit under a statute that indicates she is a threat to Russia’s national security.

Kogan has lived in Russia for over a decade and is married to a Russian man with whom she has two children.. She has been given two weeks to leave the country, she said.

Justice Initiative provides legal support to Russians seeking justice for human rights abuses in both local courts and the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

The organisation’s work in Russia’s North Caucasus region, targeting abuses by law enforcement and the military as well as gender discrimination, has angered Russia’s security services and powerful local leaders like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.

“They saw their chance to get rid of me, essentially,” Kogan told the Guardian after learning of the government’s intention to revoke her residency permit. “I think that it’s purely connected to the work that I do and my organisation does.”

Justice Initiative has been under intense government scrutiny, Kogan said, including pressure from security services for “cooperation” in their investigations (she has always declined).

Kogan said she was approached by FSB officers shortly after receiving residency in Russia in 2017 and felt the two events may have been connected. “It was almost like an ultimatum: either you cooperate with us or we won’t let you stay in Russia.”

Kogan learned that she would be expelled from the country on Wednesday when she met migration officials to discuss her application for citizenship. She said the family is now considering what to do next. “Most of the borders are closed and we’re also faced with the prospect of family separation,” she said.

Kogan said the decision also targets her husband, Grigor Avetisyan, a human rights lawyer who serves as Justice Initiative’s advocacy director. Avetisyan was forced out of Uzbekistan in 2006 for his human rights work, and Kogan said this would be his “second forced emigration”. “They’re killing two birds with one stone,” Kogan said.

The expulsion comes amid growing pressure on Justice Initiative and its partners. An affiliate based in Ingushetia in the North Caucasus was labelled a foreign agent last year, and the group’s offices in Dagestan, Moscow, and Nazran have been raided since 2019.

“We’ve been a thorn in the authorities’ side for years,” Kogan said, noting the organisation’s success at winning cases, including the first judgment on domestic violence in Russia at the ECHR last year.

“Since the organisation’s founding, we’ve secured €25,000,000 for our clients. Many of them are from the North Caucasus, many of them have been accused of terrorism offences. Of course, in the eyes of the security services, we defend terrorists,” she said.

Justice Initiative, a partner of the Netherlands-based Stichting Justice Initiative, is one of a dwindling number of foreign-backed human rights organisations still operating in Russia. The last decade has seen growing restrictions on human rights organisations and their funding, including the expulsion of USAID in 2012, and the institution of aggressive laws on foreign agents and “undesirable” organisations, which can be banned outright. Russian lawmakers are seeking to expand the foreign agent law to include individuals, potentially including foreign journalists.

Another American human rights activist, Jennifer Gaspar, was expelled from Russia in 2014 in a case similar to Kogan’s. In 2018, the ECHR ruled that Russia had illegally revoked Gaspar’s residency. Gaspar is married to a prominent human rights lawyer, Ivan Pavlov.

Justice Initiative’s original founding mission was to seek accountability for grave human rights abuses during the second war in Chechnya beginning in 2001, and later expanded its work into the rest of the North Caucasus, and into the area of gender discrimination.

Asked about the organisation’s future in Russia, Kogan said: “The organisation has withstood the test of time for a very long time. This is pretty extreme, but it’s not the first time we’ve face these kinds of difficulties. I feel cautiously optimistic that the organisation will survive, although of course this is going to be a very difficult time.”