While many in Russia's beleaguered pro-democracy community hold out hope that liberal-minded Dmitry Medvedev will usher in a new era of government accountability and political reform, human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a grim reality check today.
Amnesty's annual worldwide human rights report, released Friday, finds that little has changed in the three years Mr. Medvedev has been president – despite almost daily Kremlin talk about cleaning up corruption, protecting civil rights, overhauling the police, and making more space for political competition.
"Human rights defenders and independent journalists continued to face threats, harassment, and attacks, and investigations yielded few concrete results. Freedom of assembly and expression continued to come under attack, including through the banning of demonstrations, their violent dispersal and the prosecution of individuals under anti-extremism legislation," the report says, summarizing Russia's record over the past year.
"The leadership continued to stress its commitment to modernization, including by strengthening the rule of law and reforming the justice system. However,
pervasive corruption and the ineffective separation of powers were widely perceived as obstructing this agenda," it adds.
'No deep reform' to prison systems
One of Medvedev's signature campaigns aimed to reform Russia's previously untouchable police and prison systems. He launched it after a series of whistleblowers publicly alleged runaway corruption, unchecked brutality, and widespread tampering with criminal investigations within police ranks.
The still unexplained death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a police detention center two years ago led Medvedev to pledge a full house-cleaning at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and prison systems.
"Medvedev began a reform as a response to social pressure, but he allowed Interior Ministry officials themselves to carry it out. That calls into question the seriousness of the reform," says Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, Russia's largest human rights organization. "We still see police violence, and very few cases are ever investigated. There has been no deep reform."
Still unsolved journalist murders
Another Medvedev pledge was to investigate a string of murders and beatings of independent journalists and human rights monitors including the 2006 assassination of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the brutal 2009 slaying of Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, and last year's vicious beating of Oleg Kashin, a journalist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
Amnesty said journalists, ecological activists, members of the political opposition, and human rights defenders all faced harassment, intimidation, and attacks over the past year. "The authorities continued to send out mixed messages on freedom of expression. They promised greater respect and protection for journalists and civil society activists, while at the same time launching, or failing to curb, smear campaigns against prominent government critics."
Last summer, as public protests peaked over plans sponsored by Mr. Putin to build a highway through the Khimki Forest, an old-growth woodland that's part of the green belt around Moscow, Medvedev intervened personally to suspend the project and order a full environmental review.
At the time it seemed as though local ecological activists, who had suffered scores of arrests and beatings at the hands of police, might have won their three-year fight to save the forest from destruction. But after a few month's hiatus, the road-building project resumed.
Yevgenia Chirikova, head of the Defenders of the Khimki Forest, says that arrests and police violence against protesters are routinely deployed against protesters whenever they attempt to rally peacefully near the construction site.
"No, I don't see any changes for the better," Ms. Chirikova said by phone Friday. "Our rights are being trampled, and Dmitry Anatoyevich [Medvedev] remains silent about it."
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