© 2012 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – As the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Torch Relay kicks off in Moscow today, the route is marked by major human rights abuses. 

As the torch begins its journey, Human Rights Watch is launching a new interactive “alternative torch relay map” to spotlight serious human rights concerns in the cities and towns along the relay route.

Russia’s torch relay aims to display the country’s diversity and history, but human rights abuses are very much a part of Russia’s contemporary geography,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “People should be aware of the discrimination, silencing of activists, and other human rights abuses that Russia isn’t showcasing.”

According to the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee’s website, the torch relay will last 123 days, arriving in Sochi on February 7, 2014, for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games. The torch will travel more than 65,000 kilometers, through 2,900 localities in all 83 of Russia’s regions. Organizers claim the relay will be the longest in Winter Olympics history.

Human Rights Watch’s map highlights key human rights cases in 39 major cities across Russia. These include politically motivated cases against three members of the punk group Pussy Riot, the political opposition activist Alexei Navalny, and participants in the 2012 demonstration in Bolotnaya Square.

“At a time when Russia is throwing open its doors to the world, it is opening the door to discrimination and closing space for activism,” said Buchanan. “This is a moment for the international community to urge the rollback of the raft of repressive laws brought into force over the last year.” 

The map also shows the reach of the government’s 2013 campaign to demonize many human rights and other independent groups by trying to force them to register as “foreign agents.”

“The foreign agents campaign has taken a harsh toll on a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations across Russia,” Buchanan said. “Groups that bring together hunters and fishermen, aim to support those recovering from alcohol addiction, strive to promote environmental protection, or provide legal aid to prisoners – they have all been targeted under this heavy-handed law.”

Other cases show rising homophobia and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in numerous cities across Russia, including Khabarovsk, Voronezh, and St. Petersburg, including after the adoption of anti-LGBT “propaganda” laws by local legislatures and the federal parliament. Still others tell stories of police torture or the authorities’ failure to adequately investigate killings of journalists and human rights advocates, such as Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist and journalist who was abducted in Chechnya and found killed in Ingushetia in 2009. No one has been held responsible for her killing.
 

The map also draws attention to challenges to accessibility for people with disabilities and restrictions on palliative care for people in debilitating pain, by highlighting cases in specific cities that reflect broader concerns nationwide.

In Sochi itself, Human Rights Watch has documented exploitation of many workers engaged in Olympic construction; some evictions to make way for Olympic construction without fair compensation; the refusal to relocate people whose homes are severely damaged or affected by Olympic construction; and pressure on and harassment of environmental and human rights activists and journalists who criticize Olympic preparations or other government policies.

Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee Head Dmitry Chernyshenko has said that the Sochi 2014 torch relay will spread “Olympic values to the whole country.”

“Among the Olympic Charter’s central values are human dignity and nondiscrimination,” Buchanan said. “The Olympics are a crucial moment for the International Olympic Committee and Russia’s key international partners to insist on respect for international human rights.”