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Russia's rights climate deteriorating, Soviet-style restrictions increasing, activists say

Posted: 03/28/07 at 8:12 am EDT

MOSCOW -- Russia's human rights climate is deteriorating, and Soviet-style restrictions on freedom of speech and expression are multiplying, Russian and international activists warn.

Nina Tagankina, of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said there has been an "overall worsening" of the situation in Russia and that authorities are prohibiting more peaceful protests and rallies.

The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation said in a report that Russian authorities have imposed tighter restrictions on the freedom of association and were resorting to intimidation and abuse of opposition activists.

"The actions of the police ... remind one of the intolerance of political pluralism that existed here in the Soviet Union," Executive Director Aaron Rhodes said in a statement Tuesday. "Russia is moving toward a one-party state."

Over the weekend, police in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod violently dispersed an anti-government rally dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree. Three weeks earlier, police in St. Petersburg clubbed protesters and dragged them into waiting buses during a demonstration against President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin policies. An anti-government protest in Moscow in December was similarly quashed by a huge police presence that dwarfed the demonstrators.

The crackdown in Nizhny Novgorod led the United States on Monday to decry "Russian government heavy-handedness" against people trying to exercise democratic rights.

It "raises serious concerns about Russians' ability to exercise their rights to assembly, free speech and peaceful protest," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

In a letter to Russia's human rights ombudsman, leading rights activists said the breakup of the demonstrations was blatantly illegal. They also quoted Putin as saying earlier this month that "no one has the right" to deprive dissenters of the right to protest.

"A legal question arises: to what extent is policy in the country determined by the guarantees of the Constitution and to what extent by law-enforcement agencies and local governments?" said the letter, signed by Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva, For Human Rights chairman Lev Ponomaryev and 18 other activists.

Tagankina also said a new law imposing tighter restrictions on rights groups violated their freedom of expression and prevented many from operating freely.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Putin's administration does not believe there is a human rights crisis in Russia or that "democracy is in bad condition," but acknowledges that "like in any country ... there is still plenty to be done to improve democratic mechanisms."

He said he was not familiar with the International Helsinki Federation report, but that foreign asessments of human rights in Russia are often subjective and biased.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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