A human rights activist from a small town in the Urals has fled to Paris seeking asylum after a documentary on state TV channel Rossia 1 accused her of “industrial espionage”.
Nadezhda Kutepova had fought for the rights of the residents of a town in the Chelyabinsk region, where a nuclear accident occurred decades ago. She fled in secrecy, fearing that the TV report accusing her was just a step away from formal prosecution.
Kutepova founded an NGO in the late 90s called Planeta Nadezhd (Planet of Hopes) in the town of Ozyorsk. The town, built around the Mayak nuclear plant, is classified as a “strategic site” and is closed to visitors.
Mayak makes components for nuclear weapons as well as storing and converting spent nuclear fuel. In 1957, one of the storage facilities exploded and radioactive materials poisoned the area around it, including the River Techa.
Kutepova has been fighting for people in the local area to get the medical treatment and benefits they are entitled to for conditions connected to the accident.
But in April, her organisation was declared a “foreign agent” under a law that seeks to label NGOs involved in politics and accepting foreign funding.
Her case might have remained a local issue, but state-owned Rossia TV immediately threw Kutepova into the national spotlight. She was portrayed as an agent involved in industrial espionage, plotting against the country’s nuclear industry.
“[In one of the programmes] the former head of the local FSB [Federal Security Service] gave an interview about me, and he had never given any interviews to anyone before. That’s how I realised there was a directive to crack down on me,” Kutepova said.
Fearing she would be charged with espionage and treason and after consulting with her lawyer – who told her an arrest was highly likely – Kutepova and her four children left for Paris.
Planeta Nadezhd was fined 300,000 roubles ($4,600) on 26 May by a local court in Ozyorsk for not registering as a “foreign agent”.
The very next day, the federal channel Rossia 1 devoted a five-minute segment of its evening news to Kutepova.
“Planeta Nadezhd uses American funds to conduct industrial espionage,” the channel’s claimed.
On 1 June, another film about Kutepova was aired on the Yekaterinburg TV channel Rezonans TV. It featured an interview with Alexander Kalinin, then-mayor of Ozyorsk and a former head of the local FSB.
“She [Kutepova] still wants to close the plant and open the [closed] town. Her goals strangely correspond to the wishes of western countries and competitors,” he said in the interview. “Without a doubt, her actions are a threat,” Kalinin added.
This is not the first time state-run media has attacked individual figures who are not widely known to the public.
In late June, Rossia 1 aired a segment about the American academic Kendrick White, who worked as a vice rector at Nizhny Novgorod’s Lobachevsky State University (UNN).
The film portrayed him as a cynical US agent whose aim in Russia was to find talented young scientists in order to spirit them away to the west. Two days after the broadcast aired, UNN announced White’s dismissal on its website.
Grounds for fear
“TV [in Russia] does a very important thing: it legitimises lies,” said Vladimir Gelman, a political analyst and professor at the European University in St Petersburg. “When an ordinary person who is not politically active ends up in a situation like this, they risk being exposed to public dishonour,” he said in a phone interview.
Kutepova’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who specialises in treason and espionage cases said the mere fact that the channel used the term “espionage” is grounds for fear.
“I saw all those films about Nadezhda. A central TV channel used the term ‘industrial espionage’, which in Russia equals espionage – part of treason, basically. Nadezhda’s fears were real,” he said.
“Ecologists are often persecuted,” Pavlov said, adding that right now, Russia is seeing an epidemic of treason cases compared with previous years.
Kutepova, 43, was born in Ozyorsk and had lived there her whole life. She became an activist because she considers herself a victim of the nuclear industry, she said in a Skype interview.
“My father and grandparents died of cancer because they worked for the nuclear industry, and my mother was driven to an early grave by endless fights in courts,” she said.
“What we did was put pressure on the system and make the cases public knowledge. Of course Chelyabinsk officials didn’t like it; they wanted Mayak to function and make money without anyone interfering with it,” she said.
Kutepova says officials accused her of ruining the investment climate in the region.
A request for comment sent to the governor of the Chelyabinsk region remained unanswered by the time this article was published.
As for the accusations of receiving foreign financing, Kutepova said she had never made it a secret that her NGO had grants from abroad.
“We have never concealed the fact that we had foreign funding,” she said . “As for political activity, they based that on four articles in the media. Two of them were interviews with me,” she said.
At the moment nearly 25,000 peopleare affected by radiation in Ozyorsk and areas surrounding the plant, Kutepova said, and some 700,000 people living in closed towns in Russia.
The nuclear accident of 1957 affected a lot of people, Kutepova explained, but not everyone can prove it, therefore struggling to gain access to the social benefits and medical treatment to which they are entitled.
“A lot of people have pages of different diagnoses, but they’re told their illnesses have nothing to do with radiation and are simply age related,” Kutepova said.
Kutepova admitted she had only been able to solve individual cases and problems concerning the plant, but said residents of the closed town now have far fewer problems getting permission for relatives and other visitors to enter the town.
“But it wasn’t like that in 2003-04. For instance, they would only allow people’s mothers to visit them once a year, for no reason. Or they would allow someone to visit for 10 days, but not 11. People dealing with the officials were in constant stress, asking for all these permits and waiting for an answer,” she said.
Currently Kutepova is claiming political asylum in Paris. She would like to return to Ozyorsk and continue her work, but she’s afraid of being prosecuted for espionage and treason.
Alexei Sevastyanov, the Chelyabinsk region human rights ombudsman appointed by the regional governor and legislature, said prosecution was unlikely.
“The TV programmes were obviously ordered by someone who wasn’t pleased with Nadezhda’s efforts,” he said. “But there is no interest from the law enforcement agencies – her organisation did receive foreign financing, and in a closed town it was thoroughly inspected, so if there had been any questions, they would have been asked by now,” said Sevastyanov, for whom Kutepova had been working as a public adviser since 2011.
Kutepova said she had filed several requests with prosecutors’ offices in Moscow and the Chelyabinsk region, inquiring about possible cases against her, but hasn’t received any answers yet.
By Daria Litvinova for The Moscow Times, part of the New East network