As Russians took to the streets early last year to protest in favor of reforms and against longtime leader Vladimir Putin, the situation only became worse. In 2012 Russia experienced its worst year in terms of human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, said Human Rights Watch.
Throughout the year, Russian authorities issued a series of draconian laws—including a controversial measure that allows the government to take down websites deemed harmful to children, but what opposition members suspect will be used to shut down their websites—that Human Rights Watch said contributed to the country’s decline in freedom.
Russian lawmakers also passed a law that expands the definition of high treason, including possibly criminalizing working with certain international organizations.
“This has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director with the rights group. “Russia’s civil society is standing strong but with the space around it shrinking rapidly, it needs support now more than ever.”
Russian authorities also harassed and intimidated opposition activists, and interjected themselves into the affairs of nongovernmental organizations.
A new measure adopted in June last year restricts public assemblies and has raised the costs of fines. When it was passed, it was viewed as a move to counter massive street demonstrations that were held by the opposition against Putin.
In November, Moscow passed a bill that prevents American citizens from adopting Russian orphans, which was apparently passed to retaliate against a law passed in the U.S. Congress called the Magnitsky Act, that puts sanctions on Russian officials responsible for torture and killings, HRW said.
“Measures to intimidate critics and restrict Russia’s vibrant civil society have reached unprecedented levels,” Williamson added. “Pressure and reprisals against activists and nongovernmental organizations need to stop.”
During the protests, Putin claimed that they were being propped up by the United States, while media campaigns in state-run newspapers and news outlets discredited activists and nongovernmental organizations.
“The Kremlin cynically conflates legitimate expressions of concern about human rights and the rule of law with undermining Russia’s sovereignty,” said Williamson, referring to Moscow’s claims that foreigners should have no say in Russia’s internal affairs. “But Russia’s international partners should not be bullied into silence.”
The rights group also pointed out the case of Russian activist Leonid Razvozzhayev, who in October said he was abducted by Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine before being denied the use of a bathroom and food for three days. He was told that his family would be killed if he didn’t sign their statement
“Instead of meaningfully investigating human rights abuses, the government is spending time and energy retaliating against civil society and free speech,” Williamson added. “Russia’s backsliding on human rights is completely at odds with being a responsible leader in a multi-polar world.”
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