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(Moscow) – The Kremlin in 2012 unleashed the worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. The authorities introduced a series of restrictive laws, harassed and intimidated activists, and interfered in the work of nongovernmental organizations, crushing hopes for reform following the winter 2011 mass protests.

“This has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russia’s civil society is standing strong but with the space around it shrinking rapidly, it needs support now more than ever.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

In Russia, since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May, a parliament dominated by members of the pro-Putin United Russia party has adopted a series of laws that imposed dramatic new restrictions on civil society. A June law introduced limits on public assembliesand raised relevant financial sanctions to the level of criminal fines, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content.

A July law forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a move Human Rights Watch said aimed to demonize nongovernmental organizations in the public eye. Another law, adopted in November, expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy.

In December, Putin signed a law allowing the suspension of nongovernmental organizations, and the freezing of their assets, if they engage in “political” activities and receive funding from US citizens or organizations. Organizations can be similarly sanctioned if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who also have US passports.

The law, which also bans US citizens from adopting Russian orphans, was passed in retaliation for the so-called Magnitsky Act, which US President Barack Obama signed into law in December. The Magnitsky Act calls for visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials allegedly involved in the torture and killing of whistleblowers in Russia. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in October, calling on the European Union to introduce similar visa restrictions and asset freezes against officials responsible for the arrest and death of a whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, and for others responsible for serious human rights violations “as a last resort measure.”

“Measures to intimidate critics and restrict Russia’s vibrant civil society have reached unprecedented levels,” Williamson said. “Pressure and reprisals against activists and nongovernmental organizations need to stop.”

The new restrictive laws followed several months of peaceful mass demonstrations protesting authoritarianism and alleged election fraud in Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary vote.

Putin accused the US of sponsoring the protests, a claim often repeated in the pro-Kremlin media that Human Rights Watch said was aimed at discrediting the protests and the political opposition. Smear campaigns in state-run and pro-Kremlin news outlets have targeted prominent nongovernmental groups and activists. Officials in several regions have warned civil servants and others not to cooperate with representatives of foreign organizations and foreign-funded domestic groups.

Twelve people are behind bars for allegedly hitting and pushing police at an otherwise peaceful mass protest on May 6. They are charged with engaging in “mass riots,” which is subject to a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Human Rights Watch said the “mass riot” charge is disproportionate to the protesters’ actions.

Criminal investigations have been opened againstopposition leaders for the May 6 protest.Prosecutors opened three separate investigations against Alexei Navalny, two of which are for alleged financial misconduct unrelated to the protest movement. An opposition figure accused of involvement in the violence, Leonid Razvozzhaev, was forcibly disappeared from Ukraine, where he was applying for political asylum, returned to Russia, and jailed. Razvozzhaev later told his lawyer that he was forced to sign a confession after severe pressure and threats to his family.

A rare bright spot for human rights in 2012 was Russia’sratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Human Rights Watch said. Though Russia has taken substantial legislative steps to implement the convention, many people with disabilities continue to be denied basic rights such as education, freedom of movement, health care, and living independently in their communities.

Russian officials often say that foreigners have no business criticizing Russia’s human rights record.

“The Kremlin cynically conflates legitimate expressions of concern about human rights and the rule of law with undermining Russia’s sovereignty,” Williamson said. “But Russia’s international partners should not be bullied into silence.”

The European Union in particular should adopt a common policy, incumbent on all member states, that would bind their approach on human rights and the rule of law in Russia, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch highlighted several other problems that caused concern in 2012. By the end of 2012, legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” was in force in 10 Russian provinces, and a similar bill was pending debate in the State Duma. Two women from the feminist punk group Pussy Riotare serving two-year prison terms for an anti-Putin stunt they performed in a Moscow cathedral. Enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions persist in the campaign against the Islamist armed insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Many patients with incurable illness were unable to access palliative care due to unjustified governmentrestrictions on strong painkillers. Exploitation of migrant workers, illegal expropriations and forced evictions, and harassment of protesters and activists in Sochi, marred Russia’s preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

“Instead of meaningfully investigating human rights abuses, the government is spending time and energy retaliating against civil society and free speech,” Williamson said. “Russia’s backsliding on human rights is completely at odds with being a responsible leader in a multi-polar world.”

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