The European Union should make the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia a focus of this weekend’s EU-Russia summit in Samara, where authorities have harassed and detained activists planning political protests, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to press Moscow to restore freedom of expression and the media, repeal draconian restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations, and implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights as a move toward ending torture and enforced disappearances in Chechnya.
The summit will take place in the southern Russian city of Samara, where authorities this week have detained and harassed human rights activists planning a “Dissenters’ March” for May 18 to protest President Vladimir Putin’s policies, including the crackdown on civil liberties. Human Rights Watch was prevented from monitoring the march in Samara when police detained its representative at Sheremetevo-1 airport, claiming that his ticket may have been “counterfeit.” He was released two hours later but missed the flight.
“The crackdown in Samara gives visiting EU leaders a firsthand view of Russia’s human rights crisis,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kremlin is reversing all the achievements of the glasnost era.”
The “Dissenters’ March” is the product of an opposition coalition called “Another Russia,” which last month joined with other Russian opposition figures to organize a series of marches in St. Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod and Moscow. Local authorities in each city banned or severely restricted the demonstrations and, when organizers assembled anyway, their peaceful protests were violently broken up by police.
Press reports suggest that Samara authorities agreed on Friday to a modified route for the march. Despite this apparent compromise, security forces have engaged in an active effort to harass the march’s organizers, as well as activists, journalists and monitors covering the preparations. According to news reports, security forces detained two of the Samara march’s organizers on May 15. They later released the two, with an explanation that they allegedly resembled a pair of suspects wanted for stealing the equivalent of US$40. Several young people were arrested for posting leaflets advertising the planned demonstration. Police confiscated the materials, and at least two of the detainees are to be charged with offenses under the law on public assembly.
On May 11, two reporters and a television cameraman were detained briefly after they tried to interview one of the organizers of the march. Police also raided the offices of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta – Samara and seized all of their computers, allegedly on the grounds that they needed to verify that they did not contain unlicensed software. On May 14, police briefly detained two representatives of the Moscow Helsinki Group as they arrived at the Samara train station. Officers had used the same excuse that the two allegedly matched the descriptions of wanted criminals.
The summit is expected to be one of the most contentious in recent memory, dominated by Russia’s ban on Polish meat, energy security, Russia’s recent tensions with Estonia, and the EU proposal on Kosovo.
“There will never be an easy time to press Russia on its worsening human rights record, but the situation has become unacceptable” said Cartner. “It’s time for the EU to have a robust conversation with Russia about its deteriorating human rights situation.”
On May 3 in Berlin, the European Union held its fifth round of “human rights consultations” with the Russian foreign ministry.
“As the EU deepens its engagement with Russia on issues like trade and energy, it must also deepen its engagement on human rights,” said Cartner. “Raising human rights concerns at lower-level meetings is simply not enough.”
Since Putin came to office in 1999, the Kremlin has systematically silenced or restricted nearly every independent institution that provides a check on executive authority, including the media, parliament, local governments and judiciary. The new law on nongovernmental organizations and changes to the law on “extremism” pose grave threats to Russia’s vibrant civil society.
The atmosphere has worsened in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections, with the authorities enforcing greater restrictions on protest rallies, and continuing to curb what remains of the independent media. Flush with energy wealth and newly confident on the global stage, the Kremlin is using sharper rhetoric to rebuff criticism and discredit the human rights and democracy movements.
In his April 26 state-of-the-nation speech, Putin suggested that the human rights and democracy movements were supported by forces intent on weakening Russia. He claimed, “There are those who, skillfully using pseudo-democratic rhetoric, would like to return to the recent past – some to loot the country’s national riches, to rob the people and the state; others to strip us of economic and political independence.”
Human Rights Watch said Russia’s political and economic resurgence should not deter the European Union from urging the Kremlin to improve its rights record.
“For the past seven years, the Kremlin has bullied its critics at home and abroad,” said Cartner. “The EU must not succumb to this. Instead, it should treat Russia like a fully fledged partner that is capable of hearing and addressing criticism.”
Worsening atmosphere for civil society
The working environment for civil society, one of the last sources of independent voices in Russia, has worsened significantly in the past two years. Nongovernmental organizations, their staff and civil society activists have been subject to burdensome administrative proceedings, taxation, government interference, arbitrary criminal proceedings and, in some cases, threats and physical attacks.
The new law on NGOs, which was signed by President Putin in January 2006, and entered into force three months later, grants state officials the power to exercise excessive interference in the work of such groups. The law allows state officials to conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs and demand access to any documentation without any judicial or other independent oversight. It further imposes onerous reporting requirements for NGOs, especially relating to any foreign sources of funding, and requires them to grant government officials access to all events.
The law required all foreign NGOs to re-register their offices in Russia by October 18, 2006. Dozens of NGOs, including those that submitted their documents prior to the October 18 deadline, were not entered in the registry by October 18 and had to suspend their activities in Russia for days or weeks until the registry reviewed their registration documents and officially re-registered the organizations. Further, the law requires foreign groups to submit in advance detailed work plans for the coming year and gives the government the right to ban or prohibit any program or activity that registration officials feel conflicts with Russia’s national interests.
EU officials should voice strong concerns about the law itself, as well as its implementation. They should press the Russian government to take concrete steps to bring the law in line with Russia’s European and international commitments to protect civil society through assuring the rights to freedom of association, expression and opinion, and the right to privacy. It is important not to leave unchallenged misleading statements by Russian officials that the new restrictions on foreign and Russian NGOs alike are standard in democratic societies. The level of discretion many of the law’s provisions grant to the authorities to interfere with legitimate activities of NGOs is manifestly inconsistent with Russia’s obligations under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights to respect the right to freedom of association, and go far beyond Council of Europe standards for government oversight of NGOs, which focus on such accountability mechanisms as annual reports and financial accounts.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the EU to urge Russia to annul the articles of the new law that allow for excessive interference with the work of nongovernmental organizations, such as those granting officials the right to order inspections, the right to be present at any events and the requirement for international groups to notify the government of their plans in advance.
Serious human rights abuses continue in Chechnya. In the past two years, the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for human rights violations in ten cases relating to “disappearances,” wrongful death, and disproportionate use of force in Chechnya. Hundreds more cases await decision. The European Court judgments on Chechnya obligate the Russian government to both rectify the violations in individual cases and make meaningful policy changes to prevent further abuses, by ensuring proper investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed by its forces. The EU should press Russia to take these crucial steps.
Research by Human Rights Watch found that torture by forces under the command of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov and the Ministry of Internal Affairs special investigative bureau is widespread and systematic. Those detained by Kadyrov’s forces are often held in secret detention places, a fact denied by Russian authorities. Enforced disappearances continue to be a hallmark abuse of the conflict, with human rights groups estimating that between 3,000 and 5,000 people “disappeared” since the conflict began in 1999, with Kadyrov’s forces overwhelmingly responsible for the enforced disappearances.
Russia has completely failed to ensure accountability for any of the abuses in Chechnya. Complete impunity for torture and disappearances reigns. The Kremlin has not only failed to limit Kadyrov or call him to account, but also has openly supported him, awarded him the Hero of Russia award, and appointed him president. Kadyrov’s presidency was confirmed in a March 2007 election.