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Rights groups concerned about respect for Russians' rights to hold rallies

MOSCOW. Jan 23 (Interfax) - Russian human rights groups believe Russian citizens are often deprived of the possibility to freely express their opinion in public rallies.

"Our law on street rallies is quite democratic, but the gap between this law and its practical implementation has been increasing over the past few years," Lyudmila Alekseyeva, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said at a round-table discussion on human rights held in the Russian Justice Ministry on Friday.

Alekseyeva believes "the authorities have no right to ban demonstrations, pickets, and rallies, they can only offer a different location or time."

"But in reality, the authorities, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, have assumed the right to ban protest rallies without any coordination and change their location and time, making the rallies pointless," she said,

Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said in response to Alekseyeva's criticism: "Street rallies are certainly an important component of a democratic society, but it doesn't mean that the authorities should not take measures to ensure public safety and the protection of citizens."

Among the negative examples public rallies, which led to riots, the minister mentioned the recent events in Latvia and the riots in Greece and France.

"We don't want to have the same riots happen. At the same time, we don't need things being dictated like it is done in China or Korea. I don't want to offend the governments of these countries. We have our own way, our historical traditions," said Konovalov.

Alekseyeva, in turn, criticized Russian television channels (mainly central), saying they are experiencing censorship.

"I cannot say that we have total censorship like it was under the Soviets, but at this stage of development, an especially important role in ensuring freedom of speech is played by central television channels, and they are experiencing tough censorship," she said.

Alekseyeva admitted that she is not aware of the mechanisms of this censorship, but said it is perfectly obvious that these channels are prohibited from criticizing the country's administration and United Russia. "Of course, we have the Internet, but only an advanced minority uses it in Russia," said Alekseyeva.

In response to that, the justice minister said: "No doubt, we have a certain slant in the direction of central television channels. No doubt, there is a need for dialogue between the authorities and society. It is not good that some segments of public information are closed. It's a different thing that this dialogue is not always cultured."

Speaking about the role of the Internet, the minister said he believes "radical viewpoints are present there." "On one hand, we are seeing panegyrics for the authorities and everything they do, and on the other hand we are seeing complete denial of the important and effectiveness of their actions. I don't think it's good for civil society," he said.