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British Prime Minister Tony Blair must send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the worsening situation in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Russian president is to arrive in London June 24 for a three-day state visit. In an open letter to the British prime minister, Human Rights Watch called for Blair to press for an end to abuses and to ensure accountability for those implicated in rights violations.

Recent Human Rights Watch research and Russian government statistics show that the situation in Chechnya is steadily worsening, with some 60 people being “disappeared” every month. Russian officials have also recently admitted the existence of forty-nine mass graves, containing the remains of almost 3,000 people.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch notes the strong position taken by the United Kingdom at the recent United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, in support of a resolution on Chechnya. That resolution, if passed, would have pressed for accountability and demanded access for U.N. monitors, including the U.N. rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial killings. But the letter also notes the apparent contradictions in Blair’s own stance.

In St. Petersburg this month, Blair spoke favourably of a recent referendum on the future of Chechnya, despite the atrocious circumstances—widespread arbitrary detention, daily disappearances, and an overall atmosphere of impunity—in which the referendum was held and in which ordinary Chechens continue to live.

“Conflicting messages on Chechnya expose the prime minister to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy,” said Steve Crawshaw, London director of Human Rights Watch. “It is absurd for the British government to criticise Russian behaviour in Chechnya in one forum, and then for Blair to praise Putin when the two men meet face to face.”

In a parliamentary debate on Chechnya on June 18, Europe minister Denis MacShane appeared evasive when pressed as to whether the prime minister would even raise the issue of Chechnya in his meetings with the Russian president.

Blair later told the House of Commons that he would mention Chechnya in his talks. In the same sentence, however, he emphasised: “It's also important that we support Russia in her action against terrorism.” Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned unlawful acts by Chechen rebels, including the Moscow theatre siege last year and a number of attacks on the pro-Moscow civilian administration in Chechnya. But Human Rights Watch argued that the British government fails to make an important connection – that the lack of accountability for the widespread abuses in Chechnya does nothing to make Russia a safer place.

“Blair played such a key role in making the Northern Ireland peace agreement happen, he of all people should not fail to understand this basic point,” said Crawshaw. “Repression and lack of accountability do not help stability, but rather make things worse. Blair must make that point clearly when he meets Putin. Failure to do so sends a message as well.”

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