Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Russia's human rights and public fights

Russia's presidential council on human rights has, at least on the outside, worked out some sort of agreement with the Kremlin over how its members will be selected. After a week of negotiations, fears of internet election of members, with all its attendant arbitrariness, have been allayed. Instead internet discussions will be presented to president Vladimir Putin along with the council's nominations for consideration. 

But the future of the council is still much in doubt with resignations over the new system and the disregard the council has been shown. 

In a further blow to the already weakened council last week three more of its members resigned in protest at a the mechanism for choosing members which they and others who have left before them say will effectively neuter the council, despite its modifications.

Igor Yurgens of Russia’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and human rights activists Valentin Gefter and Boris Pustyntsev walked out of the council in disgust at the new selection system which, in Yurgen’s words would create a, “quasi-democratic,” and not a real democratic selection. Many are angry that the president will be able to choose who actually makes up the council. Gefter added that the Kemlin’s uncompromising stance on the issue is, “proof that it would not be possible to work with such administrators in the service of the president.” 

It was for this reason that Lyudmila Alexeeyeva, the famous human rights activist and head of the Moscow-Helsinki human rights group resigned her position a week earlier. The continued pushing of this system lead to the latest walkouts, though some members, including Aleexeyeva say they may return if the new system produces a council that is not a mockery of human rights.

These are the latest of seventeen such resignations which put serious doubt over the future of the advisory body. The council’s chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, who only yesterday warned that a proposed new law directed at NGOs in Russia was ‘extremely dangerous’, has said that he would resign if the membership of the council fell below 20 members. It now has just 23 out of an original 40. 

The Council has advised on the cases of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer widely suspected of having been beaten to death by guards in his prison cell, and of Mikhail Khodokovsky, the controversial oligarch imprisoned on fraud charges but widely suspected to be the victim of political vengeance from the Kremlin. In both cases the council's recommendations lead to no change in the respective situations. More recently the council, which can only make non-binding recommendations, warned that a new law massively increasing fines for violations in public protests was unconstitutional. It was ignored. 

Some council members say they are happy with the new system and few disagree that hearing the public's voice would be a good thing. But others say that public involvement is not the issue. They warn that unless there are major improvements in the council's situation and effectiveness in the next few months at maximum it faces the real prospect of being abandoned altogether.

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