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Russian President Vladimir Putin has decreed the creation of a federal agency to oversee ethnic issues in the huge, multiracial country.

According to the decree signed on March 31, the new agency's major goal will be to prevent ethnic or religious discrimination and thwart attempts to "incite hatred."

The agency will also regulate the government's cooperation with Cossacks, semi-militarized groups the Kremlin has been using to promote conservative values and enforce order.

Russia has over 100 ethnic groups, including many non-Slavic indigenous groups in the Volga River region, Siberia, the North Caucasus, and the Far East.

Putin has juggled nationalist rhetoric and praise for the dominant Russian Orthodox church with warnings of the dangers of ethnic and religious strife in Russia, which has a large Muslim minority.

Russia has sought to justify its annexation of Crimea and sympathy for rebels in eastern Ukraine by saying it must protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.

But rights groups accuse Russia of violating the rights of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Tatar minority in Crimea since the takeover.

Based on reporting by AFP and TASS

Azerbaijan has expelled a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher after barring him from entering the country to attend the trial of two rights activists.

The New York-based group says officials gave no reason for holding Georgi Gogia for 31 hours at Baku’s international airport and for sending him back to Georgia on March 31.

HRW Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson said barring Gogia from attending hearings for Rasul Cafarov and Intiqam Aliyev “shows just how far Azerbaijan’s authorities have taken their crackdown on human rights.”

Human rights lawyer Aliyev is on trial on charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, illegal business activities, and embezzlement.

Jafarov faces similar charges. He had planned a campaign to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games, which Azerbaijan will host in June.

HRW says President Ilham Aliyev's government has used a range of bogus criminal charges in the last year to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers.

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