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The European Union should use its summit with Russia to press Moscow to end impunity for abuses in Chechnya and cease harassment of civil society in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. The summit, the first in Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s tenure, will take place June 26- 27, 2008, in Khanty Mansiisk, an oil-rich region 1400 miles east of Moscow.

As Russia enters a new political cycle under Medvedev, the EU should welcome Medvedev’s stated commitment to the rule of law and discuss progress that should be made on urgently needed reforms.

“The EU has the chance to reset the tenor of its relationship with Russia,” said Allison Gill, Russia office director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to say that because Russia is a key partner, because the EU is Russia’s friend, human rights concerns are critical to the relationship.”

In previous years, the Russian government strongly rebuffed efforts to raise human rights concerns at high-level summits, instead relegating discussions of human rights to twice-yearly human rights consultations. For its part, the EU has not always spoken strongly enough on human rights, laboring under the misperception that it cannot prioritize energy and security concerns together with human rights.

“The EU shouldn’t limit discussion of human rights to lower-level consultations because that sends the signal that human rights are a secondary concern,” said Gill. “As a strong partner to the EU, Russia is capable of hearing and responding to human rights concerns and should be treated as such.

In a memorandum prepared in advance of the EU-Russia human rights consultations held in April, Human Rights Watch highlighted several key areas in which EU leadership is urgently needed. These include Moscow’s failure to implement the rising number of European Court of Human Rights judgments finding Russia responsible for grave abuses in Chechnya, as well as the deteriorating environment for civil society in Russia.

In 34 rulings to date, the European Court has repeatedly found Russia responsible for abuses in Chechnya, including torture, “disappearances,” and extrajudicial executions. Russia has generally paid out compensation to victims. But it has refused to carry out meaningful investigations or to implement measures to address the underlying causes of abuse, which the court has obliged Russia to do.

“Russia’s failure to implement European Court decisions threatens the integrity of the court and that should worry the EU,” said Gill.

In a sign that abuses related to counter-insurgencies in Chechnya and the broader North Caucasus region are slipping further from the EU-Russia agenda, France has not included the issue of the North Caucasus in the preliminary agenda for the next round of EU-Russia human rights consultations. The talks are slated to be held in October 2008 under the French presidency of the EU. Human Rights Watch said that dropping the North Caucasus issue is a serious mistake, because this region suffers of the most serious abuses in Russia, which spill out and threaten to destabilize the situation in the country as a whole.

The European Union should also seek to build on Medvedev’s public commitment to promoting the rule of law and a free and vibrant civil society by urging him to stop government interference in the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Three recent NGO reports, including Human Rights Watch’s “Choking on Bureaucracy”, documented excessive and harmful government intrusion into NGO work, and selective implementation of laws and regulations for the purpose of harassing organizations that work on controversial issues or receive foreign funding.

The Human Rights Watch memorandum suggests a number of steps the European Union should ask Russia to take, including the following:

  • Re-open investigations into Chechnya cases where the European Court of Human Rights has determined that prior investigations were inadequate, and conduct them in a manner that insures they are meaningful and effective;
  • Conduct an in-depth inquiry into the conduct of investigations into abuses committed by Russian military servicemen, police, and intelligence officials, and other forces in the Chechen Republic to establish why these investigations are so ineffective;
  • Amend the 2006 NGO law and implementing regulations to remove the most restrictive and intrusive provisions;
  • Ensure the authorities use their discretion to impose only those obligations and burdens on NGOs that are legal, strictly necessary, and proportionate; and foster an environment where NGOs can operate freely.

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