In Russia, murder, harassment of activists continues

The Russian president promised to protect rights, but Thursday, officials announced that the body of another activist had been found.

Musa Sadulayev/AP/FILE
In this Sept. 15, 2007 file photo, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova is seen in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in southern Russia. Ms. Estemirova, a prominent human rights advocate, was kidnapped and killed in Chechnya on July 15.

MOSCOW – Russian human rights activists are mourning one of their own for the second time in barely a week, adding to mounting evidence that President Dmitri Medvedev's promise to establish rule of law and a more liberal social climate was largely campaign rhetoric: The list of human rights activists murdered or arrested since his inauguration has swelled.

Andrei Kulagin, the head of the Karelia branch of the civil rights group Spravedlivost, which means "Justice," went missing two months ago after being summoned to a meeting with unidentified persons in the regional capital of Petrozavodsk, near Russia's border with Finland. His body was recently found in a local quarry and his colleagues announced Thursday that he had been murdered.

"Human rights activists are the exposed nerves of civil society," reads a statement posted on the group's Russian-language website. "They are sharply responsive to injustices and are often at the forefront of the fight for other peoples' rights. Unfortunately, Andrei is not the first human rights activist to pay with his life for speaking the truth," it said.

Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, a 44-year veteran of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization, says that the end of Soviet-era laws against dissident activity has merely led authorities to use ad hoc measures, such as trumped-up charges and hired thugs, to quash opponents. "We've lost two activists in a short period of time," she says. "It's a reminder that it's always been dangerous to be an advocate for human rights."

Mr. Kulagin, who founded Spravedlivost in 2007, was known for his advocacy of prisoner's rights and was a member of the board of trustees of Karelia's prison administration.

Human rights experts say other outspoken critics of Russia's appalling and overcrowded prison system have been targeted for official reprisals in recent years, including Sverdlovsk activist Alexei Sokolov, who was imprisoned and charged with "robbery" earlier this year on the basis of testimony from two prison inmates whom experts described as dubious.

Last week Natalya Estemirova, the main eyes and ears inside the war-torn republic of Chechnya for Russia's largest human rights watchdog, Memorial, was murdered in a brutal contract-style slaying. Memorial subsequently suspended its activities in Chechnya, leaving no one to cover the growing tide of alleged human rights abuses in the tiny territory.

"We cannot take the risk anymore because our work [in Chechnya] has become life-threatening," Memorial official Alexander Cherkasov told the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station this week.

Others murdered in recent years include the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, gunned down on a Moscow street in February, and Yaroslav Yaroshenko, editor of an anticorruption newspaper in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, who died last month from injuries received in an attack.

Advocating for human rights "is a very dangerous profession in Russia, whether one is a journalist, lawyer, or public figure," says Lev Ponomaryov, one of Russia's longest standing human rights activists, who was himself the victim of a brutal – and as yet unsolved – street attack in March.

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