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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No More Carte Blanche

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Rt. Hon. Tony Blair M.P.
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA

Dear Mr. Blair:

We are writing to ask that you use your next meeting with President Vladimir Putin to send a principled message about human rights developments in Russia.

We welcome your eagerness to develop strong ties with Russia and to encourage the country's integration with the community of democratic states. We hope that you use this relationship to ensure better human rights compliance by the Russian government and to remind President Putin of the promises he once made at prior meetings with you and other European leaders. With Iraq likely to dominate this meeting, it is especially important that Russian leaders understand that Britain is not lowering the priority of its human rights agenda with Russia.

Responding to concerns you expressed at your first meeting with the newly elected Russian president in March 2000, Mr. Putin promised that Russia would implement certain changes in its policy in Chechnya and would cooperate with international organizations. Both promises remained unfulfilled.

The Russian government was among the first to seek to exploit the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath, suggesting that the West and Russia alike face "a common foe" that would justify Russia's abusive operation in Chechnya. The subsequent muting of criticism by U.K. and other European leaders of human rights violations in Russia allowed the government to enjoy its new role as an ally in the global campaign against terrorism and remain confident that it will face no diplomatic or other consequences as a result of its actions.

Meanwhile, as you are undoubtedly aware, the Russian government continues to give the military in Chechnya a free hand to violate some of the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Continuous field research by Human Rights Watch found that over the last year the situation in Chechnya has not improved. New rounds of abusive sweep operations by Russian troops resulted in hundreds of arbitrary detentions, cases of torture, forced "disappearances," extrajudicial executions and large-scale extortion and looting of civilian property.

The international community was quick to laud measures taken by Russian authorities to address the problem, such as the introduction of a new decree in March meant to provide better protection for civilians during sweep operations. But this decree, like one it issued seven months earlier, has been simply ignored and did not at all serve to protect the Chechen population.

Russia has clearly failed to demonstrate its commitment to accountability. The majority of investigations into abuses against civilians were suspended without meaningful investigative steps ever being taken. To date, not a single high-level commander has had to answer for atrocities, and the only case of a commander being tried for such crimes, that of Yury Budanov, has been turned into a political showcase.

In part to persuade the international community that the conflict in Chechnya is winding down, Russian authorities started to intensively compel the return of thousands of Chechen displaced people currently residing in tent camps in neighboring Ingushetia. While publicly stressing that the return would be strictly voluntary, officials bring significant pressure to bear on the internally displaced, short of overt coercion.

The Russian government did not issue invitations to UN human rights mechanisms whose mandates cover the core abuses of this conflict -- torture, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearances -- and failed to comply with other recommendations of international institutions. In this connection, its decision to cancel a long overdue joint visit to the region by the special rapporteur on violence against women and the special representative of the secretary-general on internally displaced people is particularly troubling. Russian authorities also continued to impede access to the region for several human rights organizations and independent journalists, thus preventing the Russian and international public from receiving objective information about the conflict.

Despite the government's repeated assurances of its support of a free press, independent media outlets and journalists throughout Russia continued to be harassed. Even if the government was not directly responsible for court challenges against media outlets and physical assaults on journalists, it has undoubtedly benefited from the outcome -- media criticism of government policies has significantly softened, while journalists and media outlets have found themselves increasingly impelled to practice painstaking self-censorship. In some cases, the government seeks criminal prosecution of journalists to intimidate them, and in this regard the security services are particularly active in their pursuit of unfounded espionage charges against journalists and research scientists who expose government malfeasance or collaborate with foreign colleagues on sensitive matters.

One of the most glaring cases of such persecution is that of Grigory Pasko, who was sentenced in 2001 to four years in a maximum-security prison on groundless charges of espionage. The charges derived from Pasko's alleged intent to give the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun handwritten notes he had taken at a closed meeting in the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet in September 1997. We believe the charges against Pasko are politically motivated, intended to punish him for articles he wrote exposing corruption in the Pacific Fleet and Russian disposal of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan, and to intimidate journalists like him who seek to investigate sensitive subjects. The Pasko defense team has argued that its client was convicted on the basis of secret regulations.

We hope that in your dialogue with President Putin you will call for the release of Grigory Pasko, and will emphasize that widespread infringements of media freedom and the arbitrariness of security agencies are antithetical to a government that strives to position itself in the international arena as free and democratic.

With regard to Chechnya, we respectfully ask that you urge Mr. Putin to:

Provide reliable guarantees that internally displaced persons and refugees will not be pressured to return to Chechnya while threats to life and security prevail, and that their basic humanitarian needs will be met in Ingushetia.

Demonstrate commitment to accountability by instructing the government to provide international institutions and EU partners with an updated, comprehensive and detailed list of criminal investigations into abuses committed by federal forces against civilians in Chechnya.

Instruct the government to issue invitations to the UN special rapporteur on torture and extrajudicial executions, and the working groups on arbitrary detention and enforced or involuntary disappearances, and commit to a firm schedule for a visit by the special rapporteur on violence against women and the special representative of the secretary-general on internally displaced people.

Instruct the government to allow unrestricted access into Chechnya for journalists and human rights groups.

Britain could play a critical role in urging Russia's respect for human rights, while any failure to condemn Russia's interpretation of the new international environment as a carte blanche for continued abuses in Chechnya risks jeopardizing European credibility in pursuing human rights protection throughout the world.

We thank you for your attention to this letter.

This letter was sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the eve of his visit to Moscow by Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Europe and Central Asia division, and Steve Crawshaw, London director of Human Rights Watch.