Washington Bureau

02.27.14

State Department: Putin Oversaw Massive Human Rights Abuses

The State Department’s 2013 report on human rights is out and it contains a scathing critique of life inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Russian government led by Vladimir Putin systematically suppressed dissent, persecuted LGBT citizens, ignored the rule of law, allowed killing and torture by police, and committed a long list of other human rights abuses last year, according to new State Department report.

In its 2013 Russia country report on human rights, released Thursday, the State Department documented human rights violations by the Russian government and security services that included: “allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials, life-threatening prison conditions, interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial, restrictions on freedom of speech and press, restrictions on free assembly and association, restrictions on religious freedom of some religious minorities, electoral irregularities, widespread corruption, societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists, violence against women and limits on the rights of women in certain regions, trafficking in persons, and limitations on workers’ rights.”

Although many of the abuses occurred outside Moscow, especially in the North Caucasus region which includes Chechnya and Sochi, Putin’s government “failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity,” the State Department reported. Putin is fighting a decades-long insurgency in Chechnya. Sochi was the location for the recently completed 2014 Olympic winter games.

In the North Caucasus alone, human rights abuses included killings, torture, physical abuse, and politically motivated abductions, according to the report. Other major violations included the government’s abuse of a “foreign agents” law to “harass, pressure, discredit, and/or prosecute individuals and entities that had voiced criticism of the government, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), independent media outlets, and the political opposition.”

Russian government passed laws and policies also provided the context for government repression of LGBT citizens, environmental activists, ethnic minorities, and migrant workers, the State Department reported. The migrant workers brought into Russia to build the infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics were often targets of abuse.

“On June 12, police in Sochi brutally beat and raped construction worker Martiros Demerchyan, according to human rights and media sources,” the report said. “Demerchyan and his brother-in-law had worked on a Sochi Olympic construction site and had complained to their employer about nonpayment of wages, after which police arrested him and attempted to force him to confess to stealing construction materials. When Demerchyan refused, police beat him for hours, knocking out his teeth, cracking his skull, breaking his ribs, and raping him with a crowbar.”

A Russian government investigative committee later said that Demerchyan’s claims could not be substantiated and opened a case against him for making false allegations against the police. Authorities in Sochi also routinely harassed activists and journalists who raised issues related to the preparations for the 2014 games.

Throughout the country, Russian law enforcement officials regularly employed torture, abuse, and other violence to coerce confessions from suspects.  “Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments, as those methods are less prone to leave visible marks,” the State Department report stated.

Other examples of Russian political persecution noted in the State Department report were the arrest and detention of opposition leader Alexey Navalnyy, the prosecution and imprisonment of two member of the band Pussy Riot, and the failure of the Russian justice system to bring to justice the killers of Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who died after being beaten in Russian prison and was posthumously convicted on charges of tax fraud.

President Obama signed into law the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act of 2012, which created a list of Russian human rights violators who would be subject to visa bans and asset freezes. But after initially adding 18 names to the Magnitsky list in 2013, this year the White House decided not to expand the list any further.

Uzra Zeya, the State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, contrasted Russia’s poor human rights record with the recent actions by the parliament in Ukraine, where legislators removed President Viktor Yanokovich from power after security forces used violence against protesters, resulting in scores of deaths.

“In Ukraine, however, when a sustained, civic protest movement calling for government accountability and reform was met with increasing violence, former supporters of the government broke with their party to come together with the opposition in the national legislature,” she said. “In response to the violence, the parliament established a government, revised the constitution to create checks and balances, and committed to early presidential elections. These are the first steps to help the country move beyond the current crisis and pursue the more democratic and prosperous future that the people of Ukraine deserve.  The power of the people has rarely been as evident as it has been in Ukraine this winter and this week.”