US President George W. Bush should challenge his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Russia’s deteriorating human rights record when the two leaders meet in the United States on July 1 and 2, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on Bush to press Putin to restore freedom of expression and the media, repeal draconian restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations, put an end to continued torture and enforced disappearances in Chechnya, and step up the fight against growing racism and xenophobia in Russia.

The two presidents are meeting at the Bush family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, amid increasing political tensions between the US and Russia over the proposed US missile shield in Europe and other issues.

“Putin’s policies are rolling back hard-won freedoms in Russia,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As Bush tries to repair relations with Russia, he must make clear the US is not willing to overlook Putin’s worsening human rights record.”

Since Putin came to office in 1999, his government has been responsible for a serious deterioration in many spheres of human rights and has taken sweeping measures to curb or silence independent voices and dissent.

“Unfortunately, the Bush administration has lost credibility due to its own poor human rights record,” said Cartner. “Nevertheless, the US has a role to play in pressing for human rights guarantees, especially in areas like freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

The Russian government has gone to great lengths to silence opposition and dissent. The broadcast media and the largest newspapers have all systematically come under the control of the Kremlin or individuals loyal to the Kremlin in recent years.

In April, riot police and special forces used excessive force to break up a peaceful demonstration, known as the “Dissenters’ March,” organized by opposition activists in Moscow, beating and detaining demonstrators. In May, authorities detained and harassed human rights activists planning a march to coincide with a European Union summit with Russia in the southern city of Samara.

Nongovernmental organizations, their staff and civil society activists have been increasingly subject to burdensome administrative proceedings, taxation, government interference, arbitrary criminal proceedings and, in some cases, threats and physical attacks. A new law on NGOs, signed by Putin in January 2006, granted state officials power to exercise excessive interference in the work of such groups and imposed onerous reporting requirements for NGOs, especially relating to any foreign sources of funding.

The Bush administration’s proposed 2008 budget calls for drastic cuts in its support for civil society and human rights in Russia. The 2008 budget reduces funding for civil society programs by 52 percent (from US$28.7 million to US$13.8 million) and human rights programs by 44 percent (from US$1,497,000 to US$832,000).

“US support for civil society in Russia has never been more important,” said Cartner. “The proposed cuts would generate trivial savings for the US, but it would be devastating to Russian civil society struggling for its survival.”

Rampant human rights abuses in Chechnya are another serious concern that should be at the top of Bush’s agenda next week. Torture by government forces, including pro-Moscow Chechen forces under the leadership of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, is widespread and systematic. Enforced disappearances continue, with human rights groups estimating that between 3,000 and 5,000 people “disappeared” since the most recent conflict in Chechnya began in 1999.

In the last year, Russia has seen a rise in racism and xenophobia, encouraged at least in part by the racist rhetoric and policies of politicians. Just this month, police arrested more than 40 people following what they called coordinated attacks on minorities from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In October and November, the Russian government expelled more than 2,500 ethnic Georgians from Russia following a political row with the Georgian government. In August, residents of the northwestern Karelia Republic perpetrated a string of attacks against ethnic minorities in retaliation for the killing of two Russians by Chechens after a restaurant brawl.