Leading human rights group evicted from Moscow office

Lev Ponomarev appears at the window of his office in Moscow, 21 June The stand-off began on Friday afternoon

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A prominent Russian human rights group has been forcibly evicted from its office in Moscow after a stand-off with the city authorities over the lease.

Security guards removed veteran activist Lev Ponomarev and his For Human Rights group in a dramatic operation in the middle of the night.

Mr Ponomarev, 72, said later he had been beaten and kicked, and others had been assaulted too.

Non-governmental organisations have come under mounting pressure in Russia.

A law passed since Vladimir Putin was re-elected president last year obliges them to register as "foreign agents" if they receive any foreign funding, thereby stigmatising them in the eyes of many Russians.

Hundreds of NGOs in Russia have been raided in recent months.

Mr Ponomarev, a founding member of Russia's Memorial human rights organisation in the late 1980s, has publicly refused to register For Human Rights.

He suggested the eviction was linked to his group's stance and that it had paid its rent on the property, which it had occupied for 15 years, to the end of June.

However, Moscow city council said the lease had expired. "We simply evicted them because the Moscow government is not in the mood to have anyone freeload on its property," a spokesperson told AFP news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'Dragged and kicked'

The stand-off in Maly Kislovky Alley, in the city centre, began on Friday afternoon when council bailiffs arrived at the office for the eviction.

As they sought to change the locks, Mr Ponomarev and his staff of six refused to leave, and he spoke to reporters through a window.

Several liberal opposition politicians joined him in a gesture of solidarity.

At around 02:00 on Saturday (22:00 GMT Friday), a large group of men stormed the office.

"They treated us very roughly," he told Reuters news agency by telephone. "I was dragged across the floor and then kicked."

He added that he and five others had been taken by ambulance to a first-aid clinic with bruises and scrapes, but none were in hospital.

Moscow police said they had kept order outside the office but had not taken part in the actual eviction, which was carried out by private security guards. Opposition politicians insisted police had been involved too.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the office on Saturday.

Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said the dispute should have been resolved through the courts.

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