Open letter to Bertie Ahren, Taoicesh, President of the European Council | Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission | Chris Patten, External Relations Commissioner | Pascal Lamy, Trade Commissioner

Press release

On the occasion of your visit to Moscow for the summit between the European Union and Russia, and the general discussion on Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organisation, the FIDH wishes to attract your attention to the human rights situation in Russia.

Indeed relations between the European Union and Russia developed a lot those last few months. The dialogue on economical and political issues becomes more and more important and present. Moreover, the protocol on extending the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) EU-Russia to the ten new adherent countries was signed on April 2004.

The summit between EU and Russia, on May 21, 2004, will represent another important step in the development of the “strategic partnership” that EU wishes to set up with Russia. The FIDH believes that development of the relations between EU and Russia is a very positive and an absolutely necessary condition for the improvement of democracy in this country.

During the EU summit which took place in 2003 in St Petersburg it was decided to adopt a calendar for the creation of four “common spaces”: economic; freedom, security and justice; external security and research, education and culture.

Democracy in Russia is on its way of formation. EU, with its value system and its economical and political powers, can help Russia to find the way towards Rule of Law and democracy. However, the FIDH wishes to express its certitude that freedom, security and justice can only be reached through a constructive and critical dialogue. This partnership shouldn’t be built on the absence of critical approach towards very serious violations of human rights in Russian Federation, which the FIDH was regularly reporting on.

Moreover, the fact that Russian human rights record worsened in a few areas in 2003-2004 should be a matter of special concern.

The FIDH hopes that during the summit the EU envoy will stress the importance of human rights component in EU-Russian relationship. We urge you to draw the attention of President Putin to the serious violations of human rights increasing in Russia and to push the Russian government to take immediate and effective measures to address the problems of special concern which are briefly mentioned in this letter.

An important number of political freedoms is more and more threatened in Russian Federation. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the March presidential elections “lacking elements of a genuine democratic contest”, in particular underlining the “dearth of meaningful debate”. Parliamentary elections in December 2003 according to numerous credible reports also failed to meet international standards.

The Russian media are permanently under pressure. Television channels are now completely State-controlled, leaving no room for plurality of opinion. That became especially obvious during two recent election campaigns. The print press is still in a better situation but also tied up comparatively to the period of 1990s when the achievements concerning the press freedom were particularly important. The last independent radio station “Ekho Moskvy” working for a very large audience suffers from permanent pressures from the Russian authorities.

A bill on demonstrations passed the 31st March 2004 in the Duma is very significant. The initial text established a long list of locations where the demonstrations would have been forbidden and aimed prohibiting public gatherings outside government buildings, embassies and the offices of international organisations. Although this draft was later modified under pressure of civil society, this attempt may be seen as a way to hinder the work and activities of civil society in Russia.

Since the September 11 2001’s terrorist attacks, the fight against terrorism has been used by the Russian authorities as a mean to reinforce the security measures, often without taking into consideration the international human rights standards. The law on political extremism passed in June 2002, which gives no clear definition of “political extremism”, leaves the door open to numerous arbitrary interpretations. Moreover, this fight against terrorism is largely used by the Russian authorities to legitimise the grave violations of human rights in Chechnya.

The situation in the Armed forces is very concerning. According only to official figures 1.5-2.5 thousand soldiers suffer from ill-treatment and torture in the Russian Armed Forces. Physical violence is commonly used on 50 to 80% of the conscripts and on soldiers of other military ranks. In two years only, one organisation of those working on this problematic, the“Soldiers Mothers of St Petersburg”, received 1898 complaints from conscripts who were obliged to leave their units to be able to defend their rights to health care, to life and to dignity. Some of the conscripts are used as “slaves” in order to built vacancy houses for their officers or for people who paid the officers to have their house built. Other conscripts are regularly exploited for working for markets or factories. Ill treatment and tortures accompany all this. Moreover, officers often ask the conscripts for money, leaving them no other choice than to beg or to steal in order to escape from violent punishments. Neither the Russian government nor the military authorities have taken the appropriate measures to punish those abuses so far. Besides Russian soldiers also suffer from dramatic living conditions: cold or heat and permanent lack of food.

The FIDH is deeply concerned by the situation in Russian prisons. Russian justice authorities and law enforcement officials regularly violate the presumption of innocence, the right of defense, the right to the respect of privacy, and the right to a fair trial. Russian authorities also carried out persecution against lawyers, as well as against its perceived opponents. As an example, cases of scientist Igor Sutiagin, businessmen Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin, rights advocate Rafael Usmanov, politician Akmed Zakaev and others can be mentioned.

Human rights defenders are finding their position weakened as the ruling political party grows in strength and the administration mobilise behind it. The international mission of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint programme of the FIDH and the OMCT), sent to Russia in November 2003 noted that the pressures placed on associations are, on the whole, indirect, but with long term consequences for the spread of activism, as well as for public perception and financial support. Indeed, their situation is even more preoccupying in Chechnya. Human rights defender Zoura Biteva, accused of an “active support of Doudaev’s and Mashkhadov’s regime” was killed as well as her family in her own home in May 2003.

The excessive use of violence by the police against detainees continues to be voluntarily “ignored” by law enforcement officials. Police torture and ill treatment repeatedly reported by Russian non-governmental organisations stay unpunished and the courts continue to rely on evidences obtained under physical pressures. Russia’s criminal code states that detainees can only be medically examined with the permission of a judge or of their case investigator, which may be seen, considering the dependency of the judicial branch, as a direct violation of the right to health care.

The dramatic conclusions drew by the report of the UN Committee on Economic, social and cultural rights (11.2003) show the deterioration of the situation in Russia. Among major problems, have to be mentioned low level wages, high rates of unemployment, gender inequality, restrictions of the right to strike, growing number of street children and orphans, general deterioration of the level of availability and accessibility to health care, including the problem of high level of HIV infection rates and of infant and maternal mortality.

The gravest threat to human rights in Russia continued to be the situation in Chechnya. The civilian population there is still the main victim of the war. Despite the referendum in March and the presidential election in October 2003, which were meant to give a misleading image of normalisation, the situation has constantly deteriorated. The recent assassination of President Akhmad Kadyrov may be seen as another proof of the non-stabilisation of the area. The EU should urge President Putin to assure free and democratic election in Chechnya. They could be held only after the termination of kidnappings, disappearances and arbitrary detentions. Free and fair election can not be held in conditions of armed conflict, which goes hand in hand with a climate of fear.

The number of crimes committed against the civilian population has increased this past year, particularly abductions and forced disappearances. Targeted operations are more systematic and more obviously punitive. More and more often, they affect women, who are tortured, raped and murdered. The Russian military and the collaborators of the secret services no longer limit their targeting at people, who are suspected of sympathy for the Chechnya armed groups or who are active in civilian life, but extend to all their families’ members. Under the rule of President Akhmad Kadyrov, forces under his command were frequently blamed for carrying out brutal raids on civilian homes and committing other serious human rights violations. Moreover, the closure of refugees’ camps in Ingushetia shows the pressure put by the Russian authorities on displaced persons to return to Chechnya despite the risk still existing there.

The FIDH is seriously concerned that the conflict will escalate following the assassination of Kadyrov and that this dramatic event will provoke even more serious human rights violations against innocent civilians, detainees and human rights defenders in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The FIDH believes that the strengthening of the partnership between EU and Russia cannot be built at the expense of human rights.

Human Rights are universal and indivisible. EU must demand that Russia, despite its political power, respect fundamental freedoms, as well as the safety and physical and psychological integrity of its citizens.

That is why we ask you, during your meeting with Mr. Putin, to bring up the situation of human rights in Russia in general, and in Chechnya in particular. We do expect a great determination to express clearly the concerns of EU to the Russian authorities and to request from them to put an immediate end to attacks, ill treatment, forced disappearances and the execution of civilians without due process in Chechnya, as well as to all forms of selective use of justice, violence, and violation of political freedoms on the whole territory of Russian Federation. EU should also ask the Russian Federation to ensure the freedom and independence of media over the whole territory, and to commit themselves to carry effective efforts at establishing rule of law.

Sidiki Kaba,
President of the FIDH

Read more