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Marshalling Rights: Presidential Council on Human Rights to Produce a New Development Strategy for Human Rights Protection by the End of the Year

Mikhail FedotovWhen President Dmitry Medvedev met with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights on February 1, his opening address focused on improving conditions for Russia's children and the imminent introduction of the police law. A month and a half later can the council claim any progress in these areas? And what new plans does it have to investigate the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

The Head of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov and two of his colleagues spoke to journalists on Tuesday about its plans for the future. "The council is working on a plan for the development of human rights protection in Russia, which we hope will be ready by the end of the year," said Fedotov. "But it is a huge task. We have to diagnose the human rights situation today and decide what needs to be done to improve it. It will be like a Marshall Plan for Civil Society and Human Rights in Russia."

The council's next monthly meeting is set to take place in Perm in April. The group will then meet with the president later in the summer in one of the cities in the North Caucasus, boosting attempts to raise the many pressing human rights issues related to the region. "At our last meeting in February we discussed three main areas: historical memory, defending the family and children's rights, and the police reform," Fedotov said.

So has anything improved in these areas since February? The police reform came into place on March 1 and it is far too early to talk about any concrete transformation of the police force beyond its name, which changed from "militsiya" to "politsiya." Fedotov said that civil councils should be set up to control police activity. "We think such councils should be set up by representative organs of power, rather than by the police force itself." Fedotov said, suggesting that the Civic Chamber should play an active role in this.

And there is still a lot of work to be done. When president Medvedev met police chiefs on Tuesday, they revealed some grim statistics. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said that every second felony committed in Russia goes unsolved. This includes over 2,000 murders and attempted murders and just over 4,000 serious assaults. Don't have nightmares though ­ the number of crimes reported has fallen by 12.2 percent.

The council, which was recently expanded to include 40 members, covers a wide range of issues, from rehabilitating communist-era political prisoners to analyzing reforms such as a draft bill on NGOs, which Fedotov said envisaged introducing compulsory start-up capital benchmark of 500,000 rubles for such organizations. Added to this is the fact that they are working to guarantee rights across the country, a challenge which the council is well aware of. "It is important that improvements are seen beyond Moscow, as not everywhere has such active rights defenders," said Fedotov, pointing to Moscow's leading activists such as Lyudmila Alexeyeva as sorely lacking in some parts of the country.

So, it is understandable that work on the less glamorous or pressing issues can be put on hold when there is a major infringement on human rights, which demands the council's attention.

Two weeks after Medvedev's February meeting with the council, Natalia Vasilieva, a press secretary at Khamovnichesky Court, where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced in his second trial in December 2010, made allegations about the way in which the trial was conducted. Vasilieva, who was also working as an assistant to Judge Viktor Danilkin during the trial, claimed that Moscow City Court judges decided the verdict and that Danilkin was forced to accept and deliver it. In an interview with Gazeta.ru published on February 14 Vasilieva said: "I can say that from the very beginning, before Danilkin went (to the deliberation room on 2 November - ed.) to reach a verdict, there was constant control, and that this control probably did not disappear after November 2 either (when the court was adjourned for the verdict to be prepared ­ ed.)"

But the council's experts will not investigate these allegations. They are limited to investigating the legal aspects of documents and transcripts related to court proceedings and sentencing, which are already in the public domain. "They have no right to assess the political nature or impact of proceedings," said Fedotov. "And the resulting reports will be made available only after the verdict comes into force, so as to avoid allegations of undue influence on the court."

Fedotov said that caution is crucial in such a high-profile case. "It is a case with a great deal of resonance, so investigators have to stick to certain principles in their investigation."

The council is commissioning a series of analyses from legal experts specializing in various aspects of law from taxation to corporate to management. "We are not ruling out foreign experts and will accept analyses produced by specialists in Russian legislation working in countries such as Germany and Canada as well as Russia," Fedotov said, adding that the experts will not be paid for their analysis.

Rather than producing a combined report based on the investigations, the council will present them individually to the president. "I expect that it will be a good, unbiased, independent analysis," Fedotov concluded.

Khodorkovsky's trial is of course not the only Russian case to incur allegations of malpractice. At the beginning of this week Interfax reported that Ilya Goryachev, the main prosecution witness in the trial of two ultranationalists accused of murdering human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, has revoked his testimony after fleeing the country. Goryachev now claims that his testimony ­ that the accused Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis confessed carrying out the killings to him ­ was extracted by force. But to effectively retract a statement, a witness must personally do so in court, something Goryachev is unlikely to consider returning to Russia to do.

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