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Russia's 'figleaf' rights council gets an overhaul

After a series of resignations and widespread criticism, Russia's Presidential Human Rights Council has been given more members than before. But, it must now show that it actually has authority of its own.

In November 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his approval to include new members on the Presidential Council for Human Rights and the Development of Civil Society. The number of members increased from 40 to 63.

Several standing committees were formed, which were to address specific social problems. Now, only a new governing board for the council needs to be named, council chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, told a press conference in Moscow.

Mikhail Fedotov

Mikhail Fedotov: Our recommendations are not always taken into account

Fedotov and the other members of the Human Rights Council were appointed directly by President Vladimir Putin, prompting critics to accuse the council that it lacked political independence.

The image of the council suffered greatly last year after twelve members left in protest, stamping the body as a 'figleaf.' Among them, were well-known human rights activists Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Yelena Panfilova, a member of the human rights group Memorial and head of Transparency International's Russian bureau.

A question of image

The Human Rights Council apparently now wants to improve its standing by stepping up its activities. The coordinator of the "Citizen, Army, Law" rights group, Sergei Krivenko, told reporters that he would work primarily for the provision of housing for military personnel. Some 57,000 families of military personnel are still on a waiting list for an apartment, he said. So far, every Minister of Defense has promised to solve the problem, but none of them did, Krivenko said.

For the first time, the Human Rights Council heard from well-known publicist Irina Khakamada. The former businesswoman and politician heads the standing committee on public participation and modernization of the economy. She is especially unhappy with the work of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. Khakamada criticized the ruling party "United Russia," saying it had transformed the legislative process in parliament into a series of political public relations events. She said that she saw no serious reform efforts on the part of Russia's political leaders.

Authorities target human rights activists

Tamara Morshchakova

Tamara Morshchakova: Administrative courts are needed

Another of the Human Rights Council's committees wants to work for legal reform. It is headed by Tamara Morshchakova, former vice president of the Russian Constitutional Court, who announced she would now be focusing on the "wrongful persecution" of human rights experts, who are often targeted by the authorities in Russia.

Moreover, Morshchakova wants to support the creation of administrative courts in Russia, in which disputes between citizens and the state could be aired. She hopes that such courts could better protect the rights of citizens.

As chairman, Fedotov is trying to disprove the common belief that the panel is ineffective because it is under the aegis of President Vladimir Putin. "I cannot say that the President pays no attention to the Council. Our recommendations may not always be taken into account, but our proposals often flow into the final document," he said in Moscow.

Fedotov added that he was confident the new board would prove that the Human Rights Council is effective and independent. The critics will be watching closely.

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