Earlier this week, as indigenous leaders from around the globe gathered for the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, at least four delegates from Russia were blocked from leaving the country.
The delegates — representing indigenous people from the vast Arctic, Siberia, Russia’s Far East and the recently annexed territory of Crimea — all faced attempts to prevent them from attending the high-level meeting in New York on Sept. 22 and 23.
Valentina Sovkina, chairwoman of the Sami Parliament in the extreme northwest of Russia, was temporarily blocked from departing the Murmansk region when her car’s tires were punctured and later when police stopped her taxi three times as she attempted to drive to Norway. She was eventually able to reach New York.
Outside the Crimean town of Simferopol on Sept. 18, scholar and Tatar assembly member Nadir Bekir wasn’t so lucky. As he tried to reach Kiev, the minibus he rode in was stopped. Four masked assailants robbed him of his passport and cellphone.
The same day, far to the north, indigenous-rights leader Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the Center for the Support of Indigenous Peoples, was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and prevented from boarding a plane to New York on grounds that his passport was missing a page and was therefore invalid.
A day later, at the same airport, authorities stopped Anna Naykanchina, formerly a member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in a similar manner.
For Sulyandziga, conflict with Russian authorities is not new. In 2012, while he was vice president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the group was temporarily forced to close down and faced intense government scrutiny.
Two days before his passport hearing, Sulyandziga spoke to Al Jazeera America from his Moscow office by Skype.
Jon Letman: Before going to the Sheremetyevo Airport, did you have any indication something like this would happen?
Rodion Sulyandziga: No. I already had checked in, I had my boarding pass … My last step was to go through customs.
So no indication there would be trouble?
No. Of course, I was waiting for some kind of provocation for the last two years because — it’s a long story — of my relations and RAIPON and so on. This was so unpredictable at the last minute.
But nobody tried to threaten you physically?
No, no, no.
You had to wait while the authorities took your passport to inspect it?
Yes, that lasted 15 minutes. I was asked to go outside of the [passport control line], waiting in the hall, and then an officer came to inform me.
What did he say exactly?
That my passport was not valid because there was one page missing.
Did he give you the passport?
He showed me one of the pages — page 31–32 — was very neatly cut by someone. Then I was invited into a separate room, where I spent more than two hours. I rejected signing any kind of explanation that I agree my passport is invalid. Finally they submitted my protocol of my passport retention. I signed the protocol, and they appointed the next hearing on the 26th of September.
[Sulyandziga’s cellphone rings, and he takes the call, from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.]
I just confirmed that the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights will be dealing with my case.
In dealing with your case, what do you expect they would do?
It’s a special rapporteur on human rights defenders. I believe they would like to have more information, and then they can approach the Russian Federation.
What do you expect on Sept. 26?
I am invited to Sheremetyevo Airport by the FSB (Federal Security Service) for, let’s say, a preliminary hearing. They should make a decision on what kind of case they will investigate against me. I hope that it will be an administrative case.
What would that mean?
It’s just a penalty up to 5,000 rubles (about $129) for damaging an official document like a passport. [He laughs sardonically.]
Did you confront the officials about damaging your passport?
Yes, of course. I told them, “I am in my good health, and I’m going to my flight. Do you think that I would damage my passport before my flight? Do you believe [that]?” But you know, they are officers, so they just keep their mask on.
What do you think is the relationship between what happened to you and what has happened to the other three indigenous-rights leaders who were also stopped, harassed and prevented from leaving Russia?
It’s one well-planned action. It’s not only my case. That’s why we have to fight. Because of collective human rights.
Who exactly is behind this and why do they want to stop you?
Well, of course I think it’s the Federal Security Service. I cannot prove it, but you know, it happened at customs, at the passport [control].
Why would it be afraid of your going to New York?
That is the main issue I would like to know. Of course, it’s indigenous people’s rights. It’s the exploitation of natural resources. It’s land rights. It’s the industrial development of Siberia and Arctic. It’s a complex issue, but it’s a usual issue.
How high up in the government do you think this goes?
We have only one government — one strong government. I think it’s quite a coordinated action. It’s quite hard to believe, but it has happened, so we should be prepared for all kinds of scenarios.
In the near term, if a best-case scenario would be an administrative fine, what would be a worst-case scenario?
Well, to convert the case into some kind of criminal [case] or something more serious like an attempt to cross the border illegally or something like this. There are too many ways [it could go]. After the 26th, there will be more clarity.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I need solidarity. I already announced my domestic and international campaign. I have to protect my own rights and not only my rights but people’s rights. That is my strong message.
Sulyandziga’s comments were edited for clarity and length.