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Russia’s leadership must stop trying to silence the voices of civil society and opposition, Human Rights Watch said today. Ahead of this weekend’s Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russian authorities interfered with an opposition conference held in Moscow yesterday, including by preventing dozens of people from attending.

“Russia’s attempts to stifle an independent gathering speak louder than the lip service it pays to democracy,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “G8 leaders must tackle Russia’s ‘Potemkin democracy.’ They should remind President Putin of his obligations to promote democratic freedoms, not interfere with them.”

The conference, “The Other Russia,” held in Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday, was organized by civic and opposition political activists from across the political spectrum and a wide cross-section of civil society groups and grassroots movements, from human rights activists to the consumers’ union.

In the days before the conference, Russian authorities tried to bar conference attendees from leaving their home cities. Tactics reportedly used included summoning attendees to police departments, coercing from them written promises to stay at home, planting drugs, and threatening them with detention on administrative charges. In some cases, police removed people from trains and airplanes as they were about to depart to Moscow. Some participants were attacked and beaten by unknown assailants just before the conference. Such measures violate Russia’s obligations to uphold the freedoms of association and expression, under various international and European human rights treaties by which it is bound.

Mikhail Kostiaev, the acting leader of the Kaliningrad branch of the National Bolshevik Party, told Human Rights Watch that on July 7, the day before he was supposed to fly to Moscow for the conference, he was summoned to the police station. The head of the department for combating organized crime told him that there was an “order from Moscow” not to let anyone attend the conference, and that he should sell his plane ticket or the police would remove him from the flight. The next day, police removed Kostiaev from the airplane and took his internal travel passport on the basis of a court summons for an outdated complaint. Kostiaev eventually reached Moscow by train.

“It sounds absurd that I, as a citizen, am being prevented from moving freely under various pretexts,” Kostiaev told Human Rights Watch.

The National Bolshevik Party (NBP) reported that at least 36 of its activists in at least 13 cities were subject to police harassment, including beatings and administrative arrest, and 14 were prevented from traveling to Moscow. The NBP is a self-defined radical leftist organization that has been denied registration as a political party by the government.

Alexander Osovtsov, one of “The Other Russia” organizers, told the conference about dozens of similar cases of harassment, including that of one conference delegate who has reportedly been charged with terrorism as a means of preventing her attendance. Others who were prevented from coming to Moscow include: Alexander Bragin, chair of the Ulianovsk youth movement of Yaboloko, a liberal opposition party; Vitautas Lopata, of the People’s Democratic Union from Kaliningrad province; Ivan Tiutrin, of the Tomsk regional division of the Civic Front, a well-known organization that supports civil society. Russian security agents also removed several NBP members from the conference.

Last week, Russian authorities warned representatives of Western governments that their attendance at the conference would be interpreted as an “unfriendly gesture” by Russia.

“It’s ironic that the summit of industrialized democracies is taking place against a starkly undemocratic backdrop,” said Cartner. “The state has taken editorial control over most independent radio and television stations, so there’s no meaningful public debate. And there are almost no checks and balances on the Kremlin. The most fundamental of political rights cannot be freely exercised in this kind of system.”

Cartner said that the Kremlin’s political reforms of the past two years have produced a compliant parliament, a judiciary that increasingly lacks independence, and regional governors beholden to the Kremlin.

In January, President Vladimir Putin signed a new law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that allows the Justice Ministry to demand any document from an NGO at any time, without a warrant, and to ban NGO projects, or even parts of projects, for not complying with Russia’s national interests. “This level of interference with NGOs would be unthinkable in other G8 countries,” Cartner said.

As the armed conflict in Chechnya grinds into its eighth year, the Kremlin has done next to nothing to stop forced disappearances, which have reached the level of a crime against humanity, or torture and extrajudicial killings. Pervasive impunity persists in Chechnya; only a tiny number of prosecutions have resulted from these abuses. Increasingly, the forces of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Moscow Prime Minister, commit most of the abuses. But, instead of pressing Kadyrov to hold his forces accountable, Putin decorated him with the “Hero of Russia” award.

Russia’s human rights organizations have been speaking out for years about these issues and urging G8 leaders to address them directly with Putin in their bilateral relations.

“Western leaders have been silent over human rights abuses in Russia, and civil society has paid the price,” Cartner said. “The other G8 leaders need to develop a Russia policy that addresses Putin’s backsliding on democracy.”

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