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Rights group flays Russia for crushing critics

MOSCOW: Human Rights Watch yesterday condemned the Russian authorities under President Vladimir Putin for unleashing the toughest crackdown against civil society since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The repressions against critics come after Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in May in the face of unprecedented protests against his 13-year rule.
The crackdown caps a decade of “soft” authoritarianism and unleashes a new era where Kremlin critics and rights activists are openly harassed and freedoms further eroded, the New York-based group said.
“The Kremlin in 2012 unleashed the worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history,” the rights watchdog said in an English-language statement released in Moscow accompanying the release of its annual world report.
“This (2012) has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” the rights group quoted Hugh Williamson, its Europe and Central Asia director as saying.
“Measures to intimidate critics and restrict Russia’s vibrant civil society have reached unprecedented levels.”
After returning to the Kremlin for a third term despite unprecedented protests against his 13-year rule, Putin signed off on a raft of laws in what critics saw as a bid to quash dissent.
The new legislation re-criminalized slander, raised fines for misdemeanors at opposition protests and forced non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to carry a “foreign agent” tag in a move seen as a throwback to Soviet times.
Human Rights Watch gave a scathing assessment of Putin’s predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, calling his much-touted efforts at modernisation “few, timid advances on political freedoms.”
Anger over fraudulent Dec. 4 parliamentary elections coupled with Putin’s September announcement to seek the presidency brought up to 120,000 into the street of Moscow at the height of winter protests but the momentum has since died down.
Over a dozen activists are now facing jail time for taking part in May 6 protests on the eve of Putin’s inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors.
The hopes of political reforms following the anti-Kremlin protests proved short-lived, Human Rights Watch said.
Putin has accused his critics of being in the pay of foreign governments and appears increasingly unwilling to tolerate any international criticism.
The rights watchdog called on Russia’s partners not to turn a blind eye to rights violations.
“Russia’s civil society is standing strong but with the space around it shrinking rapidly, it needs support now more than ever,” Williamson said.
“Russia’s international partners should not be bullied into silence.”
Moscow’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was a rare boost to human rights, the watchdog said but noted that many disabled people in the country were still denied basic rights.
The New York-based group also criticised Russia’s preparations for the 2014 Olympic Games, saying authorities took away homes from hundreds of families in the resort town of Sochi which will host the world’s premier winter event.