War Crimes, Crimes against humanity and Restrictions to democratic freedoms should not be silenced

Press release

On the eve of the European Union (EU) - Russia Summit that will take place at The Hague, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) calls on the EU not to silence concerns over serious and grave Human rights violations in Russia.

This Summit represents an important step in the development of the «strategic partnership» between the EU and Russia, where the participants will negotiate the conclusion of Road maps for the creation of four « common spaces » (economic ; freedom, security and justice ; external security ; research, education and culture). Yet, as these areas of co-operation develop, the FIDH believes that the strengthening of the partnership between Europe and Russia cannot develop at the expense of Human rights.

- Persistence of the ongoing armed conflict in Chechnya. Civilians continue to be the first victims of the conflict. Extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and looting are ongoing and remain unpunished without Russia being subjected to any sanctions on the part of the regional or international institutions it belongs to, and whose mandate includes the defence of Human Rights. According to the information received from the Human Rights Centre Memorial 250 civilian persons were killed only this year and 300 disappeared, half of them were liberated later, 20 killed, 128 are still missing.

The FIDH deplores the absence of a significant will at the highest level of the Russian State to launch a political process that could lead to a peaceful end of the war .

- Authoritarian trends. With the strengthening of Vladimir Putin’s power, principally in the context of the priority given to the fight against terrorism, control over civil society is increasing. The adoption or elaboration of new laws on freedom of assembly and the media and the organisation of referendums on constitutional changes show the Russians’ authorities will to restrict fundamental freedoms.

- Deterioration of the situation of human rights defenders. Attacks on human rights defenders are increasing as well as restrictions of their rights. In Saint-Petersburg, on June, 20, 2004, Mr. Nikolay Girenko, head of the Minority Rights Commission at St. Petersburg’s Scientific Union and chairman of the Ethnical Minority Rights, an anti-racist organisation, was murdered by unknown gunmen at his apartment.

- Last but not least the daily racism against foreigners and attacks and murders committed by violent nationalist groups and skin heads, as well as the degrading and inhuman treatment in Russian prisons and in the Army remain preoccupying concerns.

The FIDH calls upon the EU to publicly condemn these situations, and engage Russia to respect the international Human rights instruments it is a party to.

Background Information

Increasing attacks on Human rights defenders

In a report released in September 2004, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint FIDH-OMCT programme1, denounced the impact of the strengthening of the Russian regime on human rights defenders:

- New laws were adopted in 2004, restricting freedom of assembly and freedom, for NGOs, to receive funding,

- Pressure and direct attacks against human rights defenders are many, especially in Chechnya, where local NGOs are confronted with a situation of extreme danger. This pressure and violence against activists has also been recorded in the rest of the country, particularly in St Petersburg (Organisation of the mothers of soldiers, Memorial, killing of Nicolay Girenko - see above), in Krasnodar - where several proceedings have been instituted by the authorities of the region against the local NGOs, with a view to closing down these associations - and also in Tatarstan.

- Defamation campaigns with the aim to discredit human rights defenders are many: For instance, on May 7, 2004, during a press-conference on the situation in Russian prisons, General Kraev, High Representative of the General Direction of Sentence Enforcement of the Ministry of Justice, said that « according to the information received from the Ministry of Justice, certain NGOs were financed by criminal organisations ». General Kraev accused some human rights organisations, « criminal authorities », inmates’ families and lawyers of destabilizing the activities of the Ministry of Justice by pressuring of the prisons’ administration and by disseminating false information. General Kraev based his accusations on information obtained through « phone taping » and « found on the web ».

On May 26, 2004, in a speech delivered to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Parliament, Vladimir Putin declared in his annual speech on the state of the Nation : "thousands of associations and civil unions exist and work constructively in [Russia]. However, far from all of them are concerned by the defence of the real interests of the people. For some of these organisations, the main objective has become to receive funds from influent foreign and domestic foundations, for others the aim is to serve dubious groups and commercial interests".

Downfall of the freedom of media

The right to freedom of the media, already severely bashed over the last years, was seriously violated on the occasion of the hostage-taking in Beslan. Journalists present in Beslan were prevented from relating the exact situation to the public or to the hostages’ families.

Two Russian journalists, Anna Politkovskaya and Andrey Babitski faced impediments while trying to go to Beslan.

Mrs. Politkovskaya, a journalist at the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta made two unsuccessful attempts on September 1 to board a flight at Moscow’s Vnokovo airport. On her third attempt, when she was allowed to board the plane, she felt bad ten minutes after having a tea. She was lead to a hospital of Rostov where doctors diagnosed an acute intestinal infection.

Mr. Babitski, a journalist at the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe, was detained at Vnukovo airport when he tried to leave for Beslan on September 2, 2004. He was assaulted by two unknown men, consequently arrested, detained and convicted of hooliganism.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper Izvestia was fired three days after having published an article on the Beslan tragedy.

Beside Beslan crisis, other violations of freedom of media were reported.

Thus, one of the very few journalists working for the western media in the North Caucasus, Yuri Bagrov, a regional correspondent for Associated Press (AP) and the US Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE), was prevented from covering 29 August presidential elections in Chechnya after Russian secret services (FSB) seized his passport during a search of his home on August 25, 2004. Without his passport, Mr. Bagrov was unable to leave Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, to travel to Chechnya for the presidential elections on 29 August or, later, to Beslan. On September 17, 2004, the prosecutor’s office in Iristonsky, North Ossetia, opened an investigation regarding his legal status. Mr. Badrov obtained Russian nationality and a Russian passport in 2003, in conformity with a ruling of a regional court. It is the validity of that decision that is now being challenged by the Iristonsky prosecutor’s office. On October 6, 2004, Mr. Bagrov was informed that he faced charges under Article 327 of the criminal code for "forgery".

Racist violence is dramatically increasing in Russia, including daily racism against foreigners and going to attacks and murders committed by violent nationalists and skin heads. A Vietnamese student of the Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic Institute was murdered on October 14, 2004. On October 13, 2004, in the neighbourhood of Moscow two Uzbek citizens were attacked. As the result of this attack one person died, and the other was hospitalised. On October 14, 2004, in Chita-city, a Chinese citizen was murdered. The full list of racist crimes is very long.

The situation in prisons
continues to be of concern. As reported by local non-governmental organisations, law-enforcement bodies continue to practice tortures and ill-treatment of the inmates. In April 2004, a wave of protests and collective hunger-strikes engulfed the prisons of Tchelabinsk, Ural and Irkutsk. On May 6, the inmates of Irkutsk prison Sizo-1 started a hunger strike, which was followed by the inmates of two other Irkutsk prisons UK2727/15 and UK272/19.

Common practice of the Dedovshcina in the Russian Army raises great concern According to local NGOs such as Soldiers mothers of Saint-Petersburg, physical violence is commonly used against conscripts and soldiers mainly from inferior ranks: this is the phenomenon of dedovshcina. Thus, during the year of initiation, the superior soldiers practice a form of slavery on the young soldiers. These situations often lead soldiers to take a decision to run away which put them in the illegality. No effective practices of protection exist in such cases. In two years only, the « Soldiers Mothers » organisations received 1898 complaints from conscripts who were obliged to leave their units to be able to defend their rights to health care, right and dignity.

(1) Russia : Human rights defenders faced with the "Dictatorship of the Law" of 12 Octobre 2004

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