About the situation in EHRN/Co-owners’ comments

1 September 2017
About the situation in EHRN

Co-owners’ comments

The Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) is currently experiencing a crisis related to the change of its co-owners. The organization has found itself in a situation where the fate of a network with more than 600 members from 29 countries in the Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (CEECA) region depends on the decision of two people and the successful implementation of its strategy and programs may be at risk.

The Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) is currently experiencing a crisis related to property and identity theft. The organisation has found itself in a situation where the fate of a network of more than 600 members from 29 countries in the Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (CEECA) region is hanging by a thread because of the irresponsibility of the heads of the Secretariat.

Established in 1997 as a network of harm reduction organizations from the region, EHRN was registered in Lithuania in 2001 as a public organization by its two founders or 'owners,' Emilis Subata and Ingrida Sulciene. This form of registration, ithout a membership structure, was chosen as the most flexible and feasible under Lithuanian law at that time.

The Steering Committee, convened in 2001, established the Secretariat of the network, which currently employs approximately 25 staff members on a regular and freelance basis. The organization worked successfully with this structure until 2015, when Ingrida Sulciene tried to sell her share of the ownership of the organization which led to a drawn-out lawsuit between the co-owners and which in its turn led to the replacement of one of them in August 2017. The businessman, Linas Merkelis became a new co-owner of the organization.

EHRN was established in 1997 by two dedicated people as a network of harm reduction organizations from the region and registered in Lithuania in 2001 as a public organization by its two founders or 'owners,' Emilis Subata and Ingrida Sulciene. The form of registration, without structured membership, was chosen as the most flexible and feasible under Lithuanian law at that time. In 2001, Ingrida Sulciene and Vytautas Sulcas and their employees invested many hours of their time, including the first director of the secretariat, Raminta Stuikite. At the moment, about 25 employees work there on full-time contracts and freelance basis.

Additionally, in August of this year, the new pair of co-owners of the organization dismissed the Executive Director of EHRN, Anna Dovbakh, from her position. Vytautas Sulcas, the husband of Ingrida Sulciene (one of co-owners), was appointed as the new EHRN Executive Director. This appointment took place without consulting the EHRN Steering Committee.

This structure of the organization successfully existed until 2014, when Director Sergei Votyagov violated the law and the organization's charter by refusing to explain the purpose of the 1.6 million litas spent on «Other Expenses” in the financial statements. Refusing to be responsible for the lack of transparency in the organization's activities, Ingrida decided to sell her share to a company specializing in funding applications. S.V. decided to challenge Ingrida's legal right in court and lost.

The actions of the co-owners including: the groundless dismissal of Anna Dovbakh from the position of Executive Director and appointment of a relative of one of the co-owners to this position; as well as the confiscation of several office computers; the intimidation and unlawful retention of employees in the office for several hours on August 17, 2017; resulted in interference with the implementation of EHRN's activities and with the effective coordination of its work with partners.

Anna Dovbakh has never been the executive director of EHRN, which means the organization has been working without a legitimate leader for a year. And after having clarified the circumstances surrounding the illegal transfer of the Secretariat’s assets, the co-owners decided to take extreme measures. One of the founders of the Network's secretariat - Vytautas Shultas – was appointed the interim director, before his election according to the statute.

The pressure that the co-owners put on staff and their unacceptable behavior, which was unethical and contradictory to the norms of civil society is a signal that they do not intend to fulfill the mission and strategy of EHRN approved by the Steering Committee and might try to use the organization's reputation and available resources for personal purposes to the detriment of members, partners and donors of EHRN.

In July this year, co-owners E.S. and I.S. peacefully settled their issues in court and agreed that Anna Dovbakh would become the executive director. But the contract was never signed, as Anna Dovbakh never found time to meet and discuss the terms.

In response to this situation, on August 20, 2017, the EHRN Steering Committee, together with EHRN Secretariat staff, sent a letter to the co-owners of the organization and the new Executive Director demanding that everything possible be done to ensure that the organization will continue to fulfill its obligations to the members of the network, to its donors and partners, and most importantly to clients of harm reduction programs, whose life and well-being depend on the outcomes of projects implemented by EHRN. To date, on August 23, 2017, the members of the Steering Committee have not yet received an official response to their letter. In addition, two computers of Secretariat employees that were illegally seized have not been returned yet.

The way the evidence was seized and illegal activities suppressed on August 17, including the confiscation of two computers, one of which had belonged to an employee on leave, was legal. If employees have doubts, they are entitled to apply to the relevant authorities.

The requirement that employees do not leave the workplace during working hours until certain organizational issues are settled can hardly be called "unlawful retention".

For 16 years, the EHRN Secretariat has worked in accordance with the network's mission and implemented the network's strategy – a strategy that was developed and approved by its Steering Committee, which was comprised of people democratically elected by members of the network. All projects undertaken by the network and all the procedures for administrative and program activities of the network were employed to fulfill the mission and strategy of the organization in
the best way and in accordance with the principles of the work of organizations in the non-profit sector.

The concern of the Steering Committee regarding the fact that co-owners can "try to use the organisation’s reputation and resources for personal gain" is based on the following facts:

With this statement, we would like to inform you that, in the current situation, the EHRN Steering Committee and the staff of the EHRN Secretariat are doing everything possible to: ensure that the program activities of the network continue according with approved plans on time and in full; and prevent the violation financial and administrative procedures by the co-owners of the organization or its new Executive Director.

Ingrida Sulciene did not make any personal gain throughout the organisation’s history.

It’s fundamentally against the law, which the Secretariat, its leaders and co-owners must obey.

 

Co-owners and the Director responded to the Steering Committee’s letter the day after receiving it and complied with the demand not to interfere in the program activities.

As of today, August 23, 2017, all employees are provided with means to continue their work.

 

Over the past 5-6 years Ingrida Sulciene as one of the founders of the Secretariat and a co-owner has been constantly receiving information and complaints about abuse, arrogance and ignoring of the needs of EHRN beneficiaries. Auditors hired by the organization claim: "The organization could be much more restrained when it comes to costs not related directly to program activities."

We are confident that, acting in a coordinated manner, we will be able to uphold the principles of EHRN and preserve the reputation of this regional network which has supported harm reduction activists in 29 CEECA countries for 20 years. The EHRN Secretariat and the Steering Committee are working constantly to find a way out from this crisis and create a new organizational framework to continue our mission. We will keep you informed about the developments!

The EHRN Steering Committee
The EHRN Secretariat

We would like to inform you that co-owners welcome all efforts of the employees and the Steering Committee to continue program activities and ensure control, as well as to prevent any future violations and investigate the past ones.

We sincerely support and join this part of the statement.

 

Ingrida Sulciene

Linas Merkelis