WASHINGTON – The Trump administration urged Russia on Monday to release what it called a growing number of political and religious prisoners, warning that President Vladimir Putin's government was turning to "old Soviet practices" to deny rights to detainees.
The condemnation came as President Donald Trump considers holding a summit with Putin and faces continuing questions about whether his administration is insufficiently tough on Russia. In recent months, Trump's administration has taken a number of steps to put pressure on Moscow, including sanctions, but Trump has also raised concerns with comments suggesting that Russia should be allowed back into the Group of 7 — formerly the Group of 8 — industrialized economies despite its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.
The State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about the problem and added that the number of such prisoners now exceeds 150 people, according to what the U.S. said were credible human rights organizations. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was calling on Russia to cease using its legal system to "suppress dissent and peaceful religious practice."
"The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution," Nauert said.
The Russian embassy in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
A senior State Department official said the U.S. had seen a threefold increase in political prisoners in Russia since 2014, along with the use of Soviet practices such as stripping prisoners of parental rights and keeping at least one prisoner detained in a location above the Arctic Circle, despite harsh conditions there.
The official would not answer questions about why Trump's administration was taking particular issue with Russian political prisoners despite downplaying the issue of North Korean political prisoners and other human rights abuses during Trump's summit with Kim Jong Un. Nor would the official explain why the U.S. was taking particular issue with the removal of parental rights from prisoners even as it faces mushrooming criticism over thousands of migrant children being split from their parents by U.S. authorities at the southern border.
The official wasn't authorized to be identified by name and briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.
The Trump administration called specific attention to the case of four Ukrainians on a hunger strike, including filmmaker and dissident Oleg Sentsov, a staunch opponent of Russia's annexation of Crimea, where Sentsov is from. In 2015, in a case seen largely as retribution for his views, Sentsov was convicted of conspiracy to commit terror attacks and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He's been on a hunger strike demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia.
The U.S. highlighted the cases of Oyub Titiyev, the head of Chechnya's branch of the Russian human rights group Memorial. He was arrested earlier this year on what the U.S. called "trumped-up drug charges." Global human rights groups and the EU have joined the U.S. in condemning his arrest. The U.S. said that his pretrial detention had been recently extended.
Other cases drawing U.S. scrutiny included those of a Jehovah's Witness, Dennis Christensen, who has been held without trial since last year, the U.S. said. The State Department also raised the cases of five leaders from the Church of Scientology and more than a dozen Muslim followers of the late Said Nursi, a Turkish theologian.