(Moscow) - The European Union should urge Russia to make good on its reform promises by making concrete human rights improvements, Human Rights Watch said today.  The EU and Russia will hold a summit meeting May 31 through June 1, 2010 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

Russia's leadership in recent months has unexpectedly made a series of gestures supporting human rights.  At the same time, Russian human rights activists and whistleblowers have been targets of violent attacks, harassment, and intimidation for which the government is not holding the perpetrators to account.

"The EU should tell Russia's leaders that talking about reform means little until people who expose abuses are protected and perpetrators of abuses are punished," said Allison Gill, Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch. "Implementing the rule of law will mean changes in practice, not just on paper."

In mid-May, President Dmitry Medvedev signaled concern about the human rights situation in the North Caucasus, where counterinsurgency tactics have included serious human rights violations. He devoted a meeting of his human rights council to the region and invited outside experts to participate, including some from nongovernmental organizations.

Medvedev said at the meeting that local authorities in the North Caucasus must work with civil society, or leave office. This echoed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's January statement that leaders in the North Caucasus must ensure "normal working conditions" for human rights organizations that work in the region. Throughout his presidency, though, Putin had fostered a hostile environment for human rights workers.

Despite these positive developments, there has been no justice for the murders in 2009 of Natalya Estemirova, Zarema Sadulaeva, Alik Dzhabrailov, Maksharip Aushev, all independent activists from the North Caucasus, and no indication that the government is investigating possible government involvement in the crimes. Estemirova had documented some of the worst abuses by police and security forces in the counter-insurgency campaign in Chechnya, and Aushev, a prominent opposition activist in Ingushetia, was an outspoken critic of government abuses.

"The EU should welcome the Russian government's concern about the situation in the North Caucuses," Gill said. "But it should emphasize that the situation won't change until all those responsible for serious abuses are held to account."

Human Rights Watch also said that Russia's failure to implement fully the numerous European Court of Human Rights judgments on Chechnya fuels the lack of accountability in the region. In nearly all the 138 judgments to date, the European Court has found Russia responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture, and found that Russia failed to investigate these crimes.  Although the Russian government has paid the compensation ordered by the court to individual victims, it has failed in its obligation to implement meaningfully the core of the judgments, including investigating the crimes and prosecuting perpetrators.

"Implementing the judgments is not only key to justice for the victims, but it also makes clear to perpetrators that human rights violations will not be tolerated," Gill said. "The EU should make clear that it views full implementation of the judgments as central to the rule of law in Russia."  

The Russian government is currently undertaking reforms of the country's prison and law enforcement systems. On May 13, a court in Sverdlovsk province sentenced Alexei Sokolov, a rights activist who investigated cases of prison and police abuse, to five years in prison on highly suspicious theft and robbery charges that appear to have been brought in retaliation for his human rights work.

Last year, Aleksei Dymovsky, a police officer whose YouTube video exposé condemning police corruption and abuse received nationwide attention, was fired for "damaging the reputation of the police" and was forced to pay civil damages for libel. In January, Dymovsky was arrested on charges of fraud and corruption, but he was released in March and the case was closed in April. 

In February, authorities in Novorossisk held Vadim Karastelev, a human rights advocate, for seven days in misdemeanor detention for trying to organize a demonstration in support of Dymovsky. The day after Karastelev was released, unknown assailants brutally beat him, causing serious injuries from which he is still recovering. The police opened an investigation into "minor injuries," but the investigation has not been concluded. 

No one has been held accountable for other serious attacks on human rights activists. "The Russian government can't on the one hand say that it's committed to reforming the criminal justice system and on the other punish or fail to protect those who expose corruption and abuse," Gill said.

The Russian government's response to the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky was another example of how gestures are falling short of real change, Human Rights Watch said. Magnitsky, a lawyer for a firm that did work for Hermitage Capital, headed by Bill Browder, died on November 16, 2009, after 11 months in pre-trial detention while he faced charges of tax evasion.

Prison doctors established the cause of death as "heart failure," but Magnitsky's lawyer said he suffered from acute pancreatic necrosis. Documents provided by his lawyer and former colleagues show that officials rejected numerous complaints about lack of medical treatment.

While the government swiftly fired 20 officials following Magnitsky's death, no prison official has been prosecuted and the government did not allow an independent autopsy.