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Europe

German human rights commissioner reports little progress in Russia

Fresh from a trip to Russia, Germany's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, says non-governmental organizations in the country are still suffering under an unsympathetic government.

A Russian riot policeman detains a gay rights activist during a gay pride rally in Moscow

Government crackdowns on rallies are still commonplace

Germany's commissioner for human rights, Markus Loening, says rights activists in Russia are still struggling against a government that is unsympathetic to their cause and which takes measures to hamper their work.

Loening made the comments after returning from a three-day visit to Russia that saw him meet with human rights and gay rights activists as well as non-governmental organizations.

The commissioner reported being warmly welcomed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, but said that the country still had some way to go to ensuring some basic freedoms. He said the Russian government had "a completely wrong understanding" when it came to rights most Europeans take for granted, such as freedom of assembly.

"It's clear that the state there has this understanding: that citizens may only demonstrate when they are permitted to do so, and where they are permitted to do so," Loening said. "But of course this is not an acceptable position."

Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya is one of several journalists who have been killed

The German human rights commissioner reported little progress on human rights under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Russia's major TV broadcasters are still all state-controlled and the country's judiciary is not independent.

He also said a bad signal was sent when the murders of prominent journalists are not properly investigated.

Homophobic society

During his visit, Loening met with Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alexeyev, who organizes the Moscow Gay Pride parade.

Gay people living in Moscow face high levels of discrimination, and the Moscow city administration regularly seeks to scupper plans for the gay parade. Only a few weeks ago, Alexeyev says he was put under house arrest, and told to renounce a complaint he's brought before the European Court of Human Rights.

Loening expressed his amazement at what he called the tireless engagement of the gay community in the face of an extremely homophobic Russian society.

"Obviously gay and lesbian people should be able to push for their rights, here in Moscow as well. This has to be allowed. And for this cause I'll always lend my support," he said.

Russian police detain prominent rights activist Lev Ponomaryov during an unsanctioned rally

Loening says freedom of assembly is often not respected

The German rights commissioner also attended a hearing against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man. The entrepreneur was arrested in 2003 after criticizing the Kremlin and charged with fraud and tax evasion.

"Mr. Khodorkovsky sat in a glass box along with a former employee as the prosecutor read out long lists and acts," said Loening. "This trial borders on the absurd."

NGOs hindered

Loening also met with representatives of non-governmental organizations, which reported state-imposed restrictions on campaigning for the environment, human rights and democracy. Loening said the organizations were being increasingly impinged upon by the Russian government.

"All in all, the NGOs spoke of consistently bad human rights conditions, and of the consistently difficult work that they have to do," he said. "I take my hat off to these people who involve themselves despite these adversities, and face things such as imprisonment and criminal charges."

Tanya Lokshina, the deputy director of the Russia office for rights group Human Rights Watch, supports this view.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Little has reportedly changed under President Medvedev

"On the level of rhetoric, things do not look so bleak in Russia these days," she told Deutsche Welle. "But as far as the actual situation on the ground is concerned it does remain very dire. I'm talking about the plight of human rights groups, the pressure on civil society, and the ongoing crisis in the Northern Caucasus region."

Lokshina insists however that the international community, and Europe, can play a part in improving human rights conditions in Russia.

"The more officials from the European Union member states visit Russia the better, because international scrutiny always does help - at least it helps reduce the number of abuses by the mere fact that the government is aware that it is being watched," she said.

It seems clear that conditions on the ground in Russia aren't going to change anytime soon. But what Lokshina and the German human rights commissioner both agree on is that countries like Germany must continue to let Russia know that rights abuses there are not going unnoticed.

Author: Nina Werkhaeuser (dm)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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