Human rights group ‘deeply worried’

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The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is “deeply worried” about the human rights situation in Russia and invited several leading Russian activists to Oslo this week for a series of meetings. Among them was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be announced on October 8.

Human rights activists (from left) Pavel Chikov, Svetlana Gannushkina and Grigory Shvedov urged support from abroad. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

It’s only been a week since Russia President Dmitry Medvedev settled a 40-year dispute between his country and Norway over maritime borders in the Barents Sea. It’s an accord viewed by many as a sign that Russia is moving forward and can cooperate with its western neighbours, but human rights activist and Nobel nominee Svetlana Gannusjkina, age 68, is among many in Russia who are highly critical of Medvedev. His government was the subject of a seminar in Oslo on Wednesday organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, founded in 1977 to monitor compliance with human rights provisions of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Today there are 44 Helsinki Committees around the world, formed after the Helsinki Declaration of 1975 called for respect for human rights as a “fundamental factor in the development of peace and understanding between nations.” The Norwegian committee has focused recently on human rights in the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Its secretary general, Bjørn Engesland, told the audience at Wednesday’s seminar on “Medvedev’s Russia” that the committee is “deeply worried” about the status of human rights in Russia today, because of “grave violations” and “frequent attacks” on human rights activists. Panel members such as Ludmila Alexeeva, who helped found the first Helsinki Committee in Russia, claimed the worries are justified.

Russian human rights activist Ludmila Alexeeva (left), with Bjørn Engesland of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Oslo on Wednesday. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Alexeeva, at age 88 considered the “grande dame” among human rights activists in Russia, said the demonstrations are regularly broken up or not allowed, violating Russia’s own 31st article of its constitution that allows freedom of assembly. She is active in the relatively new “Strategy 31,” which gathers human rights activists on the 31st day of the month to demonstrate for its enforcement.

The gatherings, however, are routinely blocked or disrupted by Russian police, leading her to claim that Russia remains very much “a police state” not least after around 1,000 demonstrators were surrounded by an estimated 6,000 police at one gathering last year.

She and Gannusjkina gave various accounts of human rights violations, while sociologist Igor Klyamkin of the Liberation Foundation claimed that Medvedev is “taking his time” to really enforce human rights or usher in democracy.

Klyamkin claimed Russia still suffers from a “political monopoly” that “doesn’t want any competition, doesn’t want to share power.” He called Medvedev’s modernization program “a myth,” claiming that Medvedev wants to be seen as a modernizer but is doing little to revive industry, establish an independent judiciary, change the political system, crack down on corruption or attract foreign investment.

Gannusjkina said Chechens still need protection and urged Norwegian immigration officials to continue considering and granting asylum to Chechen refugees. She said she and her colleagues are in “a constant, permanent struggle” with the authorities in Russia and that Chechens still experience “universal fear.”

All agreed the new federal laws that should ensure human rights and freedom in Russia “exist only on paper” and aren’t adequately enforced. They called for support from abroad, “and signs that people care about what’s going on in Russia.” Engesland said the Norwegian Helsinki Committee already was planning a demonstration of some sort in Oslo on the 31st of October.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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