Russia should probe deaths not human rights activists, says NGO.

By agency reporter
December 8, 2009

The Russian authorities must stop persecuting human rights activists and instead channel their efforts into investigating those responsible for their murders, Amnesty International says, ahead of Human Rights Day on 10 December 2009.

“The continuing failure of the Russian authorities to respect and safeguard the work of human rights defenders as an integral part of a functioning society is in breach of their international obligations. Furthermore, it puts defenders’ lives at risk,” said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director for the global human rights organisation.

Amnesty is calling for the immediate release on bail of Alexei Sokolov, head of a Russian non-governmental organization (NGO) campaigning against torture and other ill-treatment in places of detention.

Sokolov was also investigating cases of possible corruption among regional law enforcement officials but was detained in May 2009 on suspicion that he had taken part in a 2004 robbery.

Amnesty says it considers that he is a possible 'prisoner of conscience' who may have been prosecuted for his lawful activities and is concerned that he may not receive a fair trial.

Oleg Orlov, head of the Russian NGO Human Rights Centre Memorial, could also be named a prisoner of conscience if he is imprisoned on charges of defamation after he made a statement following the murder of fellow activist Natalia Estemirova in which he referred to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Public officials should be prepared to be under close scrutiny, they have to take responsibility for their actions and statements,” Nicola Duckworth commented.

She added: “While the right to freedom of expression can be limited by law, the persecution of Oleg Orlov is a wholly disproportionate infringement of this right.”

Orlov has already been fined after being convicted on civil charges of slander arising from the same statement.

“These latest cases characterise the climate in which many human rights defenders in Russia have to work. They illustrate the lengths to which the authorities are prepared to go in order to stifle any criticism from human rights defenders directed at them,” Ms Duckworth explained.

“In the meantime," she said, "the murders of human rights defenders such as Natalia Estemirova and Zarema Sadulaieva, who both worked in Chechnya, remain unresolved.”

On 31 October 2009, Zarema Gaisanova, a staff member of a humanitarian organisation, was abducted from her home in Grozny at the time of a security operation reportedly overseen in the area by President Kadyrov. She has not been seen since and there are serious concerns for her safety.

“Persecuting human rights defenders or independent journalists for their criticism of the authorities amounts to harassment and contradicts Russia’s commitments made as a party to international human rights treaties,” Amnesty's Nicola Duckworth declared.

“We want to see a strong and real commitment from the Russian authorities to end attacks on human rights defenders and humanitarian workers. It depends on their political will to create a climate where those responsible are brought to justice,” she concluded.

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