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Russia launches 'unprecedented' crackdown, rights group warns

Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images file

A woman holds a leaflet, reading "For human rights" and featuring a picture of Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny, during an opposition rally in Moscow on April 17.

Vladimir Putin's Russia has launched an "unprecedented" crackdown on political activists and civil society groups, Human Rights Watch alleged in a report released Wednesday.

The New York-based group’s report described a "nationwide campaign" of harassment and intimidation by the former KGB officer's government.

It came on the day Putin critic Alexei Navalny urged a court to throw out what he said were trumped-up charges intended to silence him. It also comes weeks after the State Department cataloged a series of human concerns in Russia, including restrictions to harsh fines for unsanctioned political meetings, electoral fraud and the detention and trial of citizens without due process.

The HRW report, "Laws of Attrition: The Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency," said:

  • Putin’s government has sought to portray critics as "clandestine enemies" 
  • a number of political activists have been jailed 
  • and a series of restrictive laws, including one against treason that could criminalize international human rights campaigners and others that impose "draconian limits on association with foreigners," have been passed.

It also said that hundreds of organizations had been subjected to "intrusive" inspections about a raft of matters such as tax affairs, fire safety and air quality.

In one case, the report said a group was asked for chest X-rays of its staff to ensure they did not have tuberculosis. In another, officials demanded copies of speeches made at a group's meetings.

"Taken together, the laws and government actions described in this report violate Russia’s international legal obligations to protect freedom of association, expression, and assembly and threaten the viability of Russia’s vibrant civil society," the report said.

Nikolay Petrov, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, echoed the HRW findings, saying the democratic climate in Russia has got “much worse” over the past year.

“At first, these new laws were portrayed as something that would only be used as a threat, not a tool that would actually be used,” he said. “Now we are seeing these laws used a lot to target [non-profit] organizations and protests.

“Huge numbers of law enforcement officers are now involved” in the clampdown against political opponents and rights groups, he added.

Sergei Chirikov / EPA file

Russian police officers make their way through a crowd to detain opposition activists in Moscow last month.

“It is important for all democracies to be aware of what is going on in Russia.”

The HRW report cited two cases as "further examples of Russia’s waning commitment to its international human rights obligations": The two-year prison sentences given to two members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot for a political stunt in a Moscow cathedral and the fate of Leonid Razvozzhaev, a political activist accused of organizing a riot who attempted to claim asylum in neighboring Ukraine.

Razvozzhaev went missing in Ukraine after stepping outside the office of a partner organization of the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees "to take a break during an asylum interview."

"Several days later he reappeared in custody in Russia. Razvozzhaev appears to have been forcibly disappeared and was forced to sign a confession under duress while in incommunicado detention. Razvozzhaev is in custody awaiting trial in Russia," the report said.

In response to the State Department comments earlier this month, Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement accusing the United States of politicizing human rights issues, according to Reuters.

"Americans prefer not to recall their own record (of violations)," the statement said, adding that Washington has recently resorted to disproportionate use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing civilian casualties, Reuters said.

On Wednesday, a court in the industrial city of Kirov adjourned to consider Navalny’s request to throw out charges that he stole $500,000 from a state-run timber firm, The Associated Press reported.

The most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia, Navalny has suggested Putin ordered the charges trial to stop his criticism of "swindlers and thieves" in government and sideline him as a potential presidential rival.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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