Russian President Dmitry Medvedev surprised rights activists Saturday by overturning a bill to restrict freedom of assembly. Meanwhile, a journalist for a leading newspaper has been severely beaten and is in a coma.
Medvedev said in an open letter the bill was unconstitutional
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev overturned a bill to restrict freedom of assembly Saturday, in a move that surprised Russia's rights activists.
Medvedev vetoed a bill passed by Russian parliament in October that would make it illegal for those convicted of planning illegal rallies in the past to organize new demonstrations.
In an open letter to the two chambers of parliament, Medvedev explained his decision by saying that the amendment contradicted the right to assembly guaranteed by the Russian constitution.
"The law ... has aspects which would impede the realization of the constitutional right of citizens to hold gatherings, meetings, demonstrations, marches and pickets," he wrote.
Demonstrations, Medvedev added in the letter, were "one of the most effective forms of influence on the actions of the state."
Russian police are quick to break up opposition protests deemed unauthorized
However, the Kremlin said the president had not entirely rejected the idea of an amendment to the constitution's freedom of assembly clause.
Human rights activists and members of the opposition welcomed the announcement by the president – who is not known for promoting freedom of expression.
"We don't need this law," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, leader of the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group, according to the news agency Interfax. "In Russia the right to stage demonstrations is already restricted enough."
Veteran campaigner and the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, said the new law would have limited the people's right to freedom of assembly.
"It is sensible that our president saw all the risks in the bill for the authorities and the senselessness of the law," she added.
Russian police have regularly cracked down on opposition demonstrations deemed to be unauthorized. However, some observers have detected a new climate of tolerance since Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was ousted in September.
The Kremlin surprised many last month by clearly stating that authorities would not stop opposition protests of 200 people in central Moscow.
Journalist in a coma after beating
Yet, even as the Kremlin relaxed its stance on opposition rallies, the bludgeoning of a Russian journalist suggested the country still has a long way to go in protecting freedom of expression.
Oleg Kashin, a political journalist with the Kommersant daily, was beaten Friday night near his home. Doctors induced a coma after Kashin was admitted to hospital with two broken legs, a damaged skull and a fractured jaw.
Oleg Kashin's editor said the attack was likely linked to his coverage of opposition groups
The assailants did not steal Kashin's wallet or telephone – indications that the crime was related to his work, according to Kommersant editor Mikhail Mikhailin.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the prosecutor general and interior minister to "take special control of the investigation," a Kremlin spokesman said.
Journalist rights groups have criticized Russian authorities for failing to solve a number of high-profile murders of media workers. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says there have been 19 unsolved murders of journalists in Russia since 2000.
Author: David Levitz (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Kyle James