Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October 2014, 14:31 GMT

Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Russia

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Author United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 26 March 2009
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Russia, 26 March 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49ce361cc.html [accessed 31 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Overview

The UK welcomes and supports new President Dmitri Medvedev's stated agenda of promoting the rule of law in Russia, including his focus on tackling corruption, promoting judicial independence and reducing unhelpful bureaucracy. We want to see democracy in Russia deliver political pluralism and all its associated freedoms. We believe that an open and democratic Russia will provide better opportunities for the Russian people and consolidate Russia as a stable and reliable partner for the international community.

Although the presidential elections in March 2008 took place in a calm and peaceful atmosphere, the UK, EU and international observers raised their disquiet about shortcomings in the democratic process. Of particular concern were the unacceptable conditions the Russian government placed on international observers, limits to restrict the field of candidates and the lack of equal media access for candidates.

It was disappointing that the Russian government's actions, including restricting the numbers of election observers and delaying when they could travel, effectively forced the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to withdraw from monitoring the presidential elections. Following the widely criticised Russian parliamentary elections in December 2007, the UK urged Russia to allow international observers unrestricted access to future elections. The presence of OSCE observers would have provided expert, independent, election monitoring.

The UK's main areas of concern about human rights in Russia relate to media freedom, safety of journalists, civil society, racism and xenophobia, the penal system, and the situation in the North Caucasus. We continue to look to the Russian authorities to remove restrictions on their domestic media and NGOs, as well as to prevent other infringements of human rights. All these issues are recurrent themes in our bilateral and EU-Russia human rights dialogues.


Current concerns

Human rights defenders in Russia continue to face difficulties. Both the UK and EU urge Russia to respect and protect the right of human rights defenders and lawyers to conduct their work without hindrance, intimidation or harassment, in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

Media freedom and safety of journalists

We remain concerned over journalists' safety, particularly in the North Caucasus following the assassination of journalist Abdullah Alishaev in Dagestan on 3 September and the death of Magomed Yevloyev, owner of an independent news website in Ingushetia, on 31 August. The attempted murder of Mikhail Beketov, editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda newspaper, on 14 November is also suspected to have been connected to his professional activities. The low success rate in investigating and prosecuting these crimes highlights the serious risk to journalists' safety, which continues to undermine media freedom in Russia. We are aware of reports that journalists continue to be subject to pressure from the authorities, and that, as a result, many journalists practise self-censorship. There are also fears that the Law on Extremist Activity is being used inappropriately to curtail criticism of the government s policy in the North Caucasus. Although the internet, print media and radio offer a diversity of views, limited ownership of national television channels ensures that the majority of the population only has exposure to a narrow range of political views on sensitive issues. Opposition figures often find it difficult to access the mainstream media.

We highlighted the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in last year's Report. We have been following developments in the investigation and subsequent trial of three men for their involvement in Politkovskaya's death. We have previously raised Politkovskaya's case with the Russian authorities and will continue to do so. We hope that those responsible – both for carrying out and contracting the murder – are brought to justice through a fair trial procedure.

Racism and xenophobia

Ethnic discrimination and anti-Semitism in the Russian Federation is a major concern, particularly the growing levels of xenophobic feeling. The trend of violent attacks on non-ethnic Russians continues. According to the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, in 2008 there were 292 xenophobia related attacks and conflicts registered in Russia, resulting in the deaths of 122 people. Meanwhile, the Sova Center for Information and Analysis calculates that in 2008 there were only 33 guilty verdicts for violent hate crimes. In September, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted the progress made in amending Russian criminal laws aimed at countering racial discrimination, racism and extremism but voiced concern about adequate implementation of legislation. As well as noting increased levels of racist violence in Russia, ECRI reported increased racist and xenophobic discourse in politics and was concerned by the situation of asylum-seekers, refugees and the working conditions of migrants from CIS countries. We welcome President Medvedev's condemnation of "any ethnic or religious enmity" in his inauguration speech on 9 May.

Civil society

While we welcome the Russian government's action to combat xenophobic attacks, we have concerns that the amendments to the Extremist Activity Law outlined in last year's Report continue to provide an avenue for silencing dissent and targeting opposition figures. According to recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both the 2006 NGO law and law on extremist behaviour have been used to target and restrict certain individuals, including members of opposition parties, human rights defenders and NGOs. On 4 December, state investigators raided the St Petersburg office of Memorial, an internationally respected NGO researching human rights abuses from the Soviet era, under the law against extremism. The UK urges the Russian authorities to return the archive material seized as this represents decades' worth of research into the victims of political repression under Stalin. The EU issued a statement expressing concern about the use of the law against extremism against such an organisation.

New legislation has removed the right to a jury trial for those accused of terrorist acts, espionage, sabotage, subversion of the state and organising mass disorder. The Public Chamber, the state oversight committee, has described the changes as 'non-constitutional' and as heralding 'a decline in civic rights and freedoms'.

Penal system

We share the Russian authorities' concerns about their penal system. In his 2007 report, the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said, "The conditions of custody in many penitentiaries are actually similar to torture." Of particular concern is: over-crowding in prisons, due in our view mainly to the slow introduction of alternatives to imprisonment; the lack of public control over the penitentiary system; and abuse of prisoners by other prisoners and prison officials. Overcrowding, poor diet and little exercise are contributing to poor sanitation and serious health problems for prisoners. Hepatitis, TB and HIV/Aids are all prevalent within the prison population.


North Caucasus

The security situation in the North Caucasus remains fragile, with a particular deterioration in security in Ingushetia and Dagestan. Steady improvements in stability and security in Chechnya have, however, continued over the past year. Rapid reconstruction programmes are raising living standards. The number of reported abductions and violent killings continued to reduce in 2008. However, the Council of Europe's Committee Against Torture noted ongoing allegations of torture by local forces. Reports also suggest that the Chechen authorities exert heavy pressure on local media and NGOs to restrict their activities and avoid all criticism of the authorities actions.

There are regular reports of explosions and shootings carried out by rebel groups elsewhere in the North Caucasus. In Ingushetia, Human Rights Watch reports that human rights violations, including abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings, are largely carried out by federal law enforcement bodies in the course of security operations, and are almost never investigated. This impunity is fuelling further human rights violations.

In an October report, Russian human rights group Memorial noted militant attacks and counter-terrorist operations in Dagestan have increased. Their reports suggest that security forces target individuals on a list of so-called 'Wahhabist Muslims', irrespective of their involvement in terrorism. Allegations of arbitrary detention and torture of suspects are also deeply troubling. The situation is exacerbated by the poverty, corruption and lack of democratic accountability that pervade the region, and undermine long-term security. We continue to raise with the Russian government our concerns about reports of human rights violations across the North Caucasus region.


UK action

We raise human rights related concerns in both bilateral and EU human rights consultations. EU-Russia human rights consultations are held every 6 months, most recently on 20 October 2008. A UK-Russia bilateral consultation took place in January 2009. We have underlined that the objective of improved standards of human rights protection and promotion derives from Russia's international obligations rather than a 'Western' framework and is consistent with Russia's active participation at the UN, including through the Human Rights Council and in the Council of Europe.

The UK is spending £1.5 million in 2008-09 on projects supporting human rights and conflict prevention in Russia. Through the Strategic Programme Fund we are supporting NGOs working to promote media freedom and journalists' safety in Russia. We currently fund the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting to raise awareness of media law issues in Russia's regions. In the North Caucasus, the Conflict Prevention Pool supports projects run by the NGO Article 19, and local NGOs working to enhance media professionalism and journalists' protection.

Two projects funded through the Conflict Prevention Pool are creating mechanisms for co-operation between federal and local authorities and civil society to prevent new inter ethnic conflicts. We are also working to address the past injustices of the conflict by funding organisations that work with victims' families in the North Caucasus to improve access to justice through the European Court of Human Rights. The situation in the North Caucasus remains an issue of importance in our ongoing bilateral and EU discussions with Russia. With EU partners, we raised the latest developments in the North Caucasus at the EU-Russia Human Rights Consultations on 20 October.

We are working with the Russian government in several ways to address issues in the penal service, including:

  • through a project with the EU's Technical Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States programme, sharing UK experience on alternative sanctions to prison including electronic monitoring to address the issue of over-crowding;
  • by funding a project, through the Strategic Programme Fund, to develop a network of schools for public inspectors of prisons in Russia; and
  • by providing funding to a non-governmental organisation, Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture, which is working with prison authorities to combat torture and address the high number of complaints of beatings and abuse by penitentiary personnel.

In spring 2008, the Russian NGO Social Partnership completed a three-year SPF (formerly GOF) supported project on penal reform.

The project supported prison reform in Russia by equipping individuals from the community to inspect prisons independently, using the UK's Prison Board of Visitors as a model. As well as establishing a series of schools for public inspectors, the project contributed to a large-scale programme training governmental bodies and members of the penitentiary system in European standards and practices of prisoner treatment, attracting joint EU funding in the process.

The project partner also played a key role in drafting new federal legislation in this area. In June, President Medvedev signed a new law vesting public control of penitentiary institutions in regional supervisory commissions. These commissions are to be formed by the Public Chamber in conjunction with selected NGOs to monitor the observance of human rights in prisons and, where necessary, provide assistance to prisoners.


Forward look

We will continue to monitor closely Russia's adherence to its human rights commitments and obligations during 2009, and will raise any concerns we have frankly with the Russian authorities, bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora and international institutions. We encourage Russia to engage constructively with the UN Universal Periodic Review in February 2009. We believe that a strong, independent media is essential to foster and protect democratic freedoms in Russia. We will also encourage Russia to follow through on its commitments to uphold the rule of law.

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