Medvedev's first year: Has justice improved in Russia?

Some Russians say a new Amnesty International assessment understates the dangers faced by those who dare to offer dissent.

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    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (r.) speaks with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on Thursday, a year after he was inaugurated.
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MOSCOW – A year after Dmitry Medvedev was inaugurated as president of Russia pledging to put a more liberal face on the Kremlin, the country's dismal human rights picture has not improved, according to a new report by the global monitoring group Amnesty International.

"A year ago, as he took office, President Medvedev declared his commitment to enhancing the rule of law," Amnesty's secretary general Irene Khan said in a statement accompanying the report, timed for release in Russia on Medvedev's first anniversary Thursday. "In the course of the last year, Medvedev set several goals. However, no significant changes are yet visible."

The report covers a wide range of developments over the past year, including an unabated series of physical attacks on journalists and civil society activists. It notes that despite Kremlin rhetoric, "in some areas the situation has worsened."

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Russian human rights monitors welcomed the Amnesty study, but some said it may be understating the growing dangers to grassroots activists, non-governmental organizations, and investigative journalists.

"There are many changes for the worse," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, spokesman of For Human Rights, a Moscow-based grassroots coalition of groups. "Human rights activists are spied on, investigated, and there are provocations against them. Many get arrested or, in the provinces, called in [by authorities] to be warned that their activities won't be tolerated. There are hundreds of them, and lots of fabricated cases against them."

The Monitor recently wrote about a spate of violent attacks against journalists in one Russian city (click here to see the story) that has had the effect of virtually silencing all critical media outlets in the area.

This week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which has documented the unsolved murders of 16 Russian journalists in the past nine years, reported that the editor of an independent newspaper in southern Russia, who had been investigating corruption in local government, was apparently assaulted on a street in Rostov-na-Donu on April 30 and beaten so badly that he remains in a coma (more here).

"Every couple of weeks there is a new case of a journalist, trade union leader, or civil society activist being beaten or even killed," says Mr. Ikhlov. "Amnesty International doesn't even know all the details."

The Amnesty report notes that massive instability and widespread human rights violations continue in Russia's turbulent northern Caucasus region and even in Chechnya, where the Kremlin recently declared victory and with much media fanfare lifted its nearly decade-old state of emergency in the region.

Medvedev, who has cultivated the image of a computer geek who loves rock music and yoga, has made several gestures to Russia's beleaguered liberals, including granting his first-ever newspaper interview to the crusading weekly Novaya Gazeta last month.

One of his reasons for meeting with the paper, Medvedev said at the time, was his respect for a media institution that has seen four of its investigative reporters murdered in recent years, including Anna Politkovskaya (more on Ms. Politkovskaya here), who was gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment in 2006.

Medvedev also started up his own LiveJournal blog last month aiming to encourage Russians to bypass the suffocating filters of bureaucracy and communicate directly with the Kremlin. His press department says the blog has greatly improved Medvedev's picture of life around his vast domain – 12 time zones wide – and has led to more than one unspecified presidential initiative.

In a lengthy interview with the state-run English-language TV station Russia Today broadcast Thursday, Medvedev's press secretary, Natalya Timakova, said that the president has had to temper his ambitious agenda because of the still-worsening financial crisis. She added that his priorities "remain unchanged... They include the continued fight against corruption; independence of the judicial system; maintenance of social stability in the country, including protection for the poorest sectors of the population, which have been badly affected by the crisis."

Some activists say they do notice improvements, especially in their ability to navigate through Russia's byzantine and state-dominated court system.

"We have the feeling that, over time, the state organs we deal with have begun to recognize us as professional people – as lawyers – and to speak the same language with us," says Veronika Marchenko, head of "Mother's Right," a nongovernmental organization that works to establish legal rights for the families of military service people. "We work, do our jobs, and win real court cases. We feel that little by little, we're getting somewhere."

But critics say that increasing pressures against nongovernmental organizations that lack major outside funding and publicity are deeply winnowing the country's civil society, especially in the far-flung provinces.

Other complaints include the use of pro-Kremlin parliamentary supermajorities to pass constitutional amendments prolonging Kremlin terms, and state manipulation of electoral processes to ensure victory for the authorities' chosen candidate, as allegedly occurred last month in the designated Olympic city of Sochi.

Alleged cases of selective justice for political effect, such as the second trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently taking place in Moscow, call into question Medvedev's claim that establishing judicial independence is his top priority, says former opposition Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, now an independent analyst.

"There is a huge gulf between our authorities' rhetoric and everyday reality in Russia," Mr. Ryzhkov says. "The situation has only deteriorated in the past year, since Medvedev came into the Kremlin."

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