Laptop squabble adds to Russian election monitor’s woes

The chief of a Russian major NGO which is monitoring the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country was held by Russian customs officers at a Moscow airport on Friday night until she handed over her laptop for inspection.

­Lilya Shibanova, the head of Russia’s major monitoring group “Golos” (Russian for “voice” or “vote”), says her luggage was ransacked at customs control at Sheremetyevo Airport when she was returning from an EU-Russia Civil Society forum.

The customs officers were particularly interested in her laptop, which they suspected might “contain a horribly powerful program to cripple the nation’s security,” according to Shibanova. As the NGO chief refused to hand over the machine, the officers did not clear her to enter the country. The stand-off lasted for several hours.

The laptop’s confiscation has been confirmed by customs officials, but the reasons remain unclear.

Indeed, the laptop has been taken away and put in temporary storage for further examination of the information it contains,” the airport’s press service told Interfax news agency.

Shibanova’s lawyer insists current regulations do not allow customs officials to examine personal information, but the airport’s press service disagrees.

We will file a charge against the customs officers’ actions,” said Svetlana Sidorkina, Shibanova’s lawyer.

The NGO believes the officers want to hold the laptop till at least February next year – or longer.

Just a day before the incident, “Golos” was fined around $1,000 by a Moscow court for publishing “election-related opinion polls and research” between Tuesday and Wednesday, as in Russia publication of such information is forbidden within five days of elections.

The court stated it was imposing the minimal penalty on “Golos.” The complaint, which set the legal wheels in motion, actually called for the monitor’s activities to be suspended altogether. The MPs who filed the charge with the Prosecutor’s Office on November 29 argued that the NGO was funded by “foreign organizations” hoping to influence the results of the elections.

Washington regards the court’s ruling against “Golos” as “intimidation”, stressing that the NGO did not aim to influence the outcome of Sunday’s vote in Russia, but to ensure that democracy was upheld.

Meanwhile, “Golos” is preparing to sue NTV, a major Russian broadcaster, for the recently released film about the group, which according to the NGO was inaccurate and misleading.