The Russian authorities should investigate the violent attack against Lev Ponomarev, a prominent Russian human rights defender, nine international human rights organizations said today. Ponomarev, 67, was attacked and seriously injured by several unidentified assailants late on the night of March 31, 2009, outside his apartment building in Moscow.
The organizations - the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, Frontline Defenders, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, International Memorial Society, and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights - called on US President Barack Obama and other leaders meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia at the G-20 gathering in London to highlight the need to bring Ponomarev's attackers to justice and to ensure an end to the growing number of attacks on human rights activists in Russia.
"There's no doubt that Ponomarev was attacked because of his human rights work," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "President Medvedev should make certain that Ponomarev's attackers are identified and prosecuted and that human rights defenders are safeguarded from such vicious assaults."
The attack came as Ponomarev returned home from a meeting with a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The men kicked, punched, and beat him with batons. They fled when the concierge of the building heard the commotion and came to investigate. Ponomarev was taken to a local hospital, where he received emergency treatment. He is receiving follow-up care at home for his injuries, which include hemorrhaging in his eyes, severe bruising all over his body, and a possible concussion.
Ponomarev, director of Za Prava Cheloveka (For Human Rights) has been involved in human rights in Russia for nearly two decades. His work with Za Prava Cheloveka has covered a wide range of issues, including abuses in Russia's prison system, human rights violations in the North Caucasus, pensioners' and children's rights, and the rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
Ponomarev and Za Prava Cheloveka have repeatedly come under government pressure. He has been prosecuted for organizing and participating in demonstrations, accused of libeling prison officials for exposing human rights problems in prison, and warned he would be investigated for making "extremist" statements.
Ponomarev has also received anonymous threats. Prior to the March 31 assault, unknown authors modified the Wikipedia entry about Ponomarev to predict he would die from an attack. In the weeks before the attack, unknown persons twice slashed the tires of Ponomarev's car.
The attack on Ponomarev follows the killings of the prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasiya Baburova on January 19. Members of the Sova Center, which monitors nationalism and xenophobia, have received repeated death threats and threats of violence in recent months. In the past few years, several government critics, particularly those who spoke out about abuses in the North Caucasus, have been attacked or killed. These attacks and killings have not been solved.
Regular attacks on human rights defenders in Russia were raised by Russia's international partners as an issue of serious concern, most recently during the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review procedure, which Russia underwent in February 2009.
"This brutal attack on Lev Ponomarev reflects the current state of impunity and lawlessness in Russia today," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. "Peaceful critics of the government are increasingly targeted in a political climate in which Russian authorities have abdicated their responsibilities for protecting these important voices."
The organizations noted that it was especially important for President Obama to voice concern to President Medvedev, whom he met for the first time this morning. US-Russia relations were strained in the latter years of the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has emphasized the need to "re-set" the relationship.
"We welcome a new era of US-Russia relations," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "But the Obama administration should make clear today that human rights are still very much a part of its Russia agenda."