U.N. Panel: Russia Fails to Protect Journalists From Abuse, Murder

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Russia fails to protect journalists, activists, prison inmates and others at odds with authorities from a wide range of abuses, including torture and murder, the U.N. Human Rights Committee said Friday.

The findings came in a report by an 18-member panel of independent experts who urged the Kremlin to implement a number of legal reforms. They include narrowing the broad definitions of terrorism and extremism under Russian law, decriminalizing defamation cases against journalists and granting appeal rights to people forced into psychiatric hospitals by the courts.

The report said Russia was responsible for reported attacks on civilians by armed groups in South Ossetia in the aftermath of the August 2008 war with Georgia, and called for Moscow to investigate those abuses.

It also said that journalists were subject to politically motivated trials and convictions, discouraging critical media reporting, and urged the government to take action against what the panel called an increasing number of hate crimes and racially motivated attacks.

The harshest criticism, perhaps, was reserved for the Russian justice system in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus region. The panel cited reports of torture, forced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killing in those regions committed by the military and security services, saying the perpetrators "appear to enjoy widespread impunity" from punishment for their actions.

The Human Rights Committee gave Moscow one year to report back on how it was investigating abuses in the North Caucasus and South Ossetia, and protecting journalists and activists throughout Russia. The panel has no enforcement power, but it issues regular reports to draw public attention to human rights violations around the world.

While the report did not cite specific cases or statistics, it alluded to the killings of a number of journalists and human rights activists in Russia that remain unresolved, including the 2006 shooting of Anna Politkovskaya. The internationally known journalist was a harsh critic of the Kremlin and exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya.

Prosecutors have said little about who might have ordered Politkovskaya's contract-style slaying on Oct. 7, 2006. The suspected gunman is believed to be hiding abroad.

Two Western journalist groups on Thursday sent a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev demanding that those responsible for the death of Nataliya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist, be brought to justice.

Estemirova, who wrote occasionally for Politkovskaya's newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was kidnapped in front of her apartment building by four men in broad daylight in July. Her body was later found riddled with bullets in a field. There have been no arrests in the case.

"Through her professional work, Estemirova had accumulated a damning body of evidence linking human rights crimes to Chechen authorities, particularly the militia of local President Ramzan Kadyrov," said the joint statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the PEN American Center.

The statement said Estemirova was the 18th journalist murdered in Russia "in direct retaliation for her work" since 2000, and that in each case those who ordered the killings have escaped conviction.

The committee said it was concerned at "the alarming incidence of threats, violent assaults and murders of journalists and human rights defenders in the state party, which has created a climate of fear and a chilling effect on the media."

The slayings of Estemirova, rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and others in just the past year have not stopped human rights activists from working in Russia or the Caucasus. But the killings have made many of those working to halt alleged abuses by the authorities — including kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings — extremely cautious, with some avoiding media exposure.

The expert panel said it also was concerned about violence against lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, including reports of police harassment. It said it received reports of people being assaulted or even killed because they were gay or lesbian. The panel said it was concerned at the "systematic discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation" in Russia.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in the 1990s, but many Russians are vehemently opposed to expansion of gay rights or gay-rights demonstrations. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is an outspoken foe of gay rights and always has blocked attempts to hold gay pride marches in the capital, calling one a satanic gathering.

The U.N. panel — which this week assessed the compliance of Russia and four other countries with the U.N.'s 1966 international treaty on civil and political rights — receives its information from various U.N. agencies, non-governmental organizations and cases at the European Court of Human Rights.