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U.S. State Department's 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

March 8, 2006
(Section on Russia: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61671.htm)

The Russian Federation has a weak multiparty political system with a strong presidency, a government headed by a prime minister, and a bicameral legislature (Federal Assembly) consisting of a lower house (State Duma) and an upper house (Federation Council). The pro-presidential United Russia party controlled more than two-thirds of the State Duma. The country had an estimated population of 143 million.

President Vladimir Putin was re-elected in March 2004 in an election process the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) determined did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election, particularly in equal access to the media by all candidates and secrecy of the ballot. However, the voting itself was relatively free of manipulation, and the outcome was generally understood to have represented the will of the people. The government's human rights record in the continuing internal conflict in and around Chechnya remained poor. Both federal forces and their Chechen government allies generally acted with legal impunity. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces. Pro-Moscow Chechen paramilitaries at times appeared to act independently of the Russian command structure, and there were no indications that the federal authorities made any effort to rein in their extensive human rights abuses.

The most notable human rights development during the year was continued centralization of power in the executive branch, which was strengthened by changes in the parliamentary election laws and a move away from election of regional governors to their nomination by the president for confirmation by regional legislatures. This trend, taken together with continuing media restrictions and self-censorship, a compliant State Duma, continuing corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, political pressure on the judiciary, and harassment of some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) resulted in an erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the people. There were reports of the following additional significant human rights problems:

-alleged government involvement in politically motivated abductions, disappearances, and unlawful killing in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus

-hazing in the armed forces, resulting in several deaths

-harassment, and in some cases, abduction, of individuals who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), reportedly to convince them to drop their cases

-torture, violence, and other brutal or humiliating treatment

-harsh and frequently life-threatening prison conditions

-corruption in law enforcement

-arbitrary arrest and detention

-alleged executive branch influence over judicial decisions in certain high-profile cases

-government pressure that continued to weaken freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of major national networks

-continued limitations, primarily by local authorities, on freedom of assembly and restrictions on some religious groups in some regions

-societal discrimination, harassment, and violence against members of some religious minorities

-restrictions on freedom of movement and migration

-negative official attitudes toward, and sometimes harassment of, certain NGOs involved in human rights monitoring

-violence against women and children

-trafficking in persons

-widespread governmental and societal discrimination as well as racially motivated attacks against ethnic minorities and persons from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Asia, and Africa

-instances of forced labor

There were also positive developments with regard to human rights. The judiciary demonstrated greater independence in a number of cases. Reforms initiated in previous years continued to produce improvements in the criminal justice system. The authorities sought to combat instances of racial and ethnic mistreatment through prosecutions of groups and individuals accused of engaging in this behavior. Progress was also made in combating trafficking in persons.

Anti-government forces committed numerous human rights abuses in the internal conflict in Chechnya. They continued killing and intimidating local heads of administration. There were also reports of Chechen rebel involvement in both terrorist bombings and politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya and Ingushetiya during the year. Some Chechen rebels were allegedly involved in kidnapping to raise funds. There were also reports that explosives improvised by Chechen rebels often led to civilian casualties....

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, government pressure on the media persisted, resulting in numerous infringements of these rights. Faced with continuing financial difficulties, as well as pressure from the government and large private companies with links to the government, many media organizations saw their autonomy further weaken. The government used its controlling ownership interest in all national television and radio stations, as well as the majority of influential regional ones, to restrict access to information about issues deemed sensitive. It severely restricted coverage by all media of events in Chechnya. There were indications that government pressure frequently led reporters to engage in self censorship. Nonetheless, on most subjects, the public continued to have access to a broad spectrum of viewpoints in the print media and, for those with access, on the Internet.

While the government generally respected citizens' rights to freedom of expression, it sometimes restricted this right with regard to issues such as the conduct of federal forces in Chechnya, discussions of religion, or controversial reforms in the social sector. Some regional and local authorities took advantage of the judicial system's procedural weaknesses to arrest persons for expressing views critical of the government (see section 1.d.). With some exceptions, judges appeared unwilling to challenge powerful federal and local officials who sought to prosecute journalists. These proceedings often resulted in stiff fines.

On March 28, Yuriy Samodurov and Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, employees of the Sakharov Center, were found guilty of inciting religious hatred and fined $3,500 (100 thousand rubles) each. The prosecution stemmed from an exhibit on religious subjects which they organized. The defendants were convicted, after a lengthy litigation process, of inciting national, racial, and religious hostility by organizing an exhibit at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in January 2003, which some viewed as being provocative on religious issues.

Although all but two national newspapers remained privately owned, as did more than 40 percent of the 45 thousand registered local newspapers and periodicals, the government attempted to influence the reporting of independent publications. In June Gazprom, a company in which the government owns a controlling stake, bought the daily newspaper Izvestiya. In the months before the sale the newspaper's critical coverage of governmental performance, and particularly its coverage of the Beslan school massacre, had reportedly aroused the ire of the Kremlin and given rise to significant editorial changes, including an increase of non political content at the expense of political analysis, and resignations of senior editors critical of the Kremlin. Media freedom advocates viewed the paper's acquisition by Gazprom, which in 2003 had acquired the last major independent television channel, as further evidence of continuing Kremlin efforts to expand control of media beyond national television before the 2007-08 parliamentary and presidential elections. In late 2005, after a personnel change at Izvestiya, the newspaper's editorial staff was reportedly told on several occasions to be careful not to provoke Kremlin authorities. Izvestiya's coverage of the late-2005 elections in Chechnya was allegedly less critical than might have been expected under the previous ownership.

Approximately two thirds of the 2,500 television stations in the country were completely or partially owned by the federal and local governments, and the government indirectly influenced private broadcasting companies through partial ownership of such commercial structures as Gazprom and Eurofinance Bank, which in turn owned controlling or large stakes of media companies. Such influence was not uniform, however. Employees continued to exercise program control at the radio station Ekho Moskviy, although it is owned in part by Gazprom. The station maintained an independent editorial position, offering political figures across the entire political spectrum the opportunity to air their views and covering issues skirted by other electronic media. A similar stance was maintained by a number of sister stations that Ekho has established in other major cities.

Of the three national television stations, the government had a direct interest in two, the Rossiya Channel, which it owned outright, and the First Channel, in which it held a majority interest (the third national television network is NTV).The only remaining television network that had exhibited independence of the Kremlin, REN-TV, was sold during the year. REN-TV ended up under the shared control of Severstal Group and Surgutneftegas Company, each with 35 percent of the shares and both under the control of Kremlin allies. The German media company RTL owned the remaining 30 percent of REN-TV. Following the sale REN-TV observers alleged that the network's editorial line became more pro-Kremlin. The network's November 24 decision to cancel the news show "24," which was anchored by one of Russia's most outspoken journalists, Olga Romanova, was seen as evidence of this trend. A wave of resignations of REN-TV news staff ensued, amid allegations the network had started to practice self-censorship aimed at keeping the government happy.

In February the Ministry of Defense launched a new military-patriotic channel Zvezda featuring programs and movies focusing on the armed forces. In December the English-language channel Russia Today launched by the government officially began broadcasting; when the plans for the channel were originally announced the goal of the channel was "improving Russia's image" with Western audiences. Gazprom had a controlling ownership stake in NTV, the third national television station, which maintained a more independent editorial line. The government also maintained ownership of the largest radio stations, Radio Mayak and Radio Rossiya, and the news agencies ITAR TASS and RIA Novosti.

The government exerted its influence most directly on state owned media. Journalists and news anchors of Rossiya and First Channel reported receiving "guidelines" from the management prepared by the Presidential Administration, indicating which politicians they should support and which they should criticize. The two networks promoted a positive image of President Putin and suppressed reporting on the war in Chechnya, the government's legal prosecution of Yukos, the electoral crisis in Ukraine, the nationwide public protests against unpopular welfare reform, and the elimination of gubernatorial elections. Apparently as a result of government influence, criticism of presidential policies was also muted on NTV. The federal government and some regional governments also sought through various means to dampen criticism in many privately owned print publications, although with little apparent effect.

During the year the government continued to circumscribe the editorial independence and political influence of NTV. On March 10, NTV management prohibited the airing of an investigative program about the 2000 killing of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Media reports cited NTV sources as saying the program contained interviews with Ukrainian politicians and former senior government officials who made allegations of possible Russian government involvement in the killing. According to media freedom advocates, the program was pulled by order of Presidential Administration officials, who also demanded that NTV abstain from further reporting on Gongadze's case.

Government-controlled media exhibited considerable bias in favor of President Putin in its coverage of the March 2004 presidential campaign. President Putin did not actively campaign, but, as the OSCE election observation mission noted, he received coverage on the state controlled television channels far beyond what was reasonably proportionate to his role as head of state. For example, the OSCE election observation mission reported that First Channel provided him with more than 4 hours of all positive political and election coverage; the next most covered candidate received approximately 21 minutes of prime time coverage (see section 3)....