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Russia: Merkel, Rutte Should Press Putin on Rights

Wave of ‘Inspections’ the Latest Phase in Kremlin’s Worst Crackdown in 20 Years

(Berlin) – The leaders of Germany and the Netherlands should urge President Vladimir Putin of Russia during his upcoming visit to reverse his administration’s crackdown on civil society and erosion of human rights.

Putin will open the Hanover Industry Trade Fair, the world’s biggest industry show, on April 7, 2013, and hold talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in Hanover. Russia is the partner country at this year’s fair. In Amsterdam on April 8 he will hold talks with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and open the Netherlands-Russia Year 2013, including joint events on culture, the economy, and society.

“Trade fairs are about doing business, but Merkel should make clear to Putin that it cannot be business as usual for Germany’s relations with Russia until the attacks on civil society stop,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is the worst crackdown in Russia in 20 years. It is admirable to promote deeper understanding between Russia and the Netherlands, but this has very little meaning if vital parts of Russian society cannot express themselves freely.”

Both Merkel and Rutte should call for an immediate halt to the wave of unannounced inspections of nongovernmental organizations in Russia, apparently conducted to intimidate these groups. Teams of officials visited more than 200 groups in over 40 regions of Russia in March, in the latest phase of moves against civil society since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012.

Since then Russia’s parliament has adopted a series of laws that imposed new restrictions on public assemblies and raised financial sanctions for violations to the level of criminal fines, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content. Discriminatory legislation that has passed first reading in Russia’s federal parliament would ban “propaganda of homosexuality” among those under age 18. Similar laws are already in place in 10 Russian provinces.

A particularly problematic law adopted in July requires nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a move that tries to demonize nongovernmental organizations in the public eye as spies and traitors, Human Rights Watch said. Another law, adopted in November, expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy. A law adopted in December banned organizations found to “threaten Russia’s interests.”

Against this backdrop, the inspections have included visits to more than 200 Russian groups, as well as foreign organizations, including Amnesty International, Transparency International, and several German political foundations. The office of Human Rights Watch was inspected on March 27.

Germany has a close relationship with Russia in many areas including business and trade, foreign investment, energy security, and cultural issues. Merkel has been right to emphasize the importance of human rights and rule of law as a core part of this relationship and should reinforce this message in Hanover, Human Rights Watch said. On March 27 her spokesman said she would raise the wave of inspections with Putin during his visit.

Respect for human rights and the rule of law should also be a core part of the Netherlands’ relations with Russia, Human Rights Watch said. During a February visit to Moscow, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans expressed concern about Russian legislation banning the “propaganda of homosexuality.” Rutte should use his meeting with Putin to reiterate these concerns and also speak out about the broader crackdown on human rights, and should do so publicly, Human Rights Watch said. The Dutch parliament held a special debate on Russia ahead of Putin’s visit, including human rights issues, on April 3.

Russia has an obligation under its international treaty commitments, including through its membership in the Council of Europe, to uphold internationally recognized human rights standards. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative, expressed concern in late March over the wave of inspections of nongovernmental organizations, as did Germany, the UK, and other European governments.

“The crackdown on civil society is eroding the rule of law in Russia and this should be of deep concern in Germany and the Netherlands,” Williamson said. “The repressive moves against nongovernmental groups and independent voices are also eroding the foundations on which these countries’ relationships with Russia are based, so should feature strongly in the talks next week.” 

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