European Delegation Urges Russia on Rights

Russia must promote human rights through education, not just seek to punish rights violators, a Council of Europe delegation said Wednesday after a two-day fact-finding trip.

Luc Van den Brande and Teodoros Pangalos, of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, met with law enforcement officials and human rights activists to gauge whether Russia was meeting its obligations as a member of the council, which Moscow joined in 1996.

"Human rights is not just a question of defense, but also of active promotion," Van den Brande said Wednesday. "Education is very important in this."

Van den Brande also said Russia needed to adopt legislation that would allow independent rights groups to work effectively. "The country has to improve and empower civil society," he said.

The Kremlin has repeatedly accused independent rights groups critical of the government of working to undermine Russia on behalf of foreign interests. Strict registration requirements and the apparent selective enforcement of laws have crippled or shut down thousands of these groups.

The delegation met Wednesday with members of the Public Chamber, an oversight body created in 2005 whose core membership was handpicked by President Vladimir Putin. Van den Brande and Pangalos questioned the chamber's independence and its ability to tackle issues on their own merit.

"There is great concern in the NGO world about the credibility of the Public Chamber," Van den Brande said. "We were very surprised to hear that the chamber has not addressed the issue of abolishing the death penalty."

The issue was raised Tuesday, when the delegation met with prominent rights activists, he said. The Council of Europe regulations prohibit its use.

While Russia has not abolished the death penalty, authorities have long observed a de facto moratorium on its implementation.

Pavel Astakhov, a lawyer-cum-celebrity and prominent Putin supporter, defended the chamber, noting that most of its members were elected. Astakhov said a working group would likely be set up to address the death penalty issue at a chamber meeting May 23.

The delegation also talked with representatives of non-governmental organizations about their struggles to reregister under a 2006 law that was promoted as a measure to increase their accountability. According to the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, Russian authorities issued warnings in the first four months of last year to 6,000 NGOs for various alleged violations of registration procedures. It said more than 2,300 groups had been shut down by court orders since 2006.