New York, NY, February 7, 2006—PEN American Center expressed alarm today that a Russian court has frozen all assets of the Russian PEN Center under allegations that the organization failed to pay land tax.  

Although officers of the Russian PEN Center appeared before the court with documentation demonstrating that the Center is a legal tenant of the property where it conducts business, and so is not liable for the tax on the land, the tax office refused to drop the charges. The Center is appealing the decision; meanwhile, its bank account has reportedly been frozen and it has received notice that its office equipment and furnishings may be seized.

The charges come amid a crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, particularly those with an international component. In spite of strong opposition both within and outside Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed a law earlier this month that severely restricts the organizational and fundraising activities of NGOs.  This law is one of several that diminishes the ability of civil society organizations to function effectively in Russia.

In November, Russian PEN published a declaration sharply criticizing the proposed law regulating the work of NGOs. The declaration noted, “In the event that the Deputies should pass this law, the main blow will be felt not just by Russian human rights organizations, but also scientific, cultural and other humanitarian collectives which already are finding it hard to exist.”

With a membership of notable writers, including novelist Andrei Bitov and essayist Viktor Erofeyev, the Russian PEN Center was founded in May 1989 with key support from Arthur Miller, then President of International PEN, who died a year ago this week. Russian PEN has for fifteen years been a powerful advocate for freedom of expression in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Salman Rushdie, President of PEN American Center, said the actions against the Russian PEN Center were suspiciously timed and certain to add to fears for freedom of expression and civil society in Russia.  “Russian PEN has been outspoken about new laws targeting non-governmental organizations in Russia, and now the center is fighting for its life. That is a message that is surely not lost on other organizations and the Russian people as a whole,” Rushdie added. 

“The development in Russia now is very bad,” said International PEN President Jiri Grusa. “The action against Russian PEN has the handwriting of the old Soviet system. I feel great sorrow for the Russian people.”

International Secretary of PEN Joanne Leedom-Ackerman noted, “The Director of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko and Russian PEN members have been courageous advocates for freedom of expression on behalf of writers in Russia and throughout the world. PEN members around the globe are deeply disturbed by the threat to NGOs and by the decision to close Russian PEN. We call on the government to ensure that the international human rights standards to which it has committed itself are fully respected.”

International PEN, the worldwide writers’ organization, was founded in 1921 by, among others, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells, its first and second International Presidents, with a mission to promote intellectual and artistic interchange among writers and to defend freedom of expression.

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