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Prisoners in many Western countries are banned from voting, (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russia's Constitutional Court has ruled that Moscow may ignore part of a European court judgment in a dispute on prisoner voting rights, marking the first time Russia has used a controversial law asserting its right to reject international court rulings.

The leadership of the Council of Europe responded by saying the Russian verdict left room for compromise, although an international rights watchdog called it a "devastating blow" to victims of Russian injustice.

Legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in December created a mechanism for Russia to disregard international rulings, including by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), if they are believed to contravene the Russian Constitution.

The December move came months after the same Strasbourg court ordered Russia to pay $2 billion to the shareholders of Yukos, the dismantled oil giant once controlled by tycoon-turned-Kremlin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The Constitutional Court verdict on April 19 stems from a request by the Russian Justice Ministry in February to consider the constitutionality of another ECHR judgment from 2013 calling on Russia to reform its blanket ban on prisoner voting rights.

The Constitutional Court said it was "prepared to compromise" with Strasbourg but that it was "impossible" to change the law to give prisoners the right to vote.

The court, however, said that some facilities for prisoners serving sentences for less serious crimes could be labeled differently under the law in order to preserve their right to vote.

"Russia was and remains a composite part of the European legal space, which supposes dialogue on an equal footing and a preparedness to compromise," the court wrote on its website.

The secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, reacted cautiously to the Russian verdict.

"Today's judgment of the Constitutional Court suggests that there is a way to resolve the issue through a change of legislation which would alleviate the existing restrictions on the right to vote," he said in a statement. "I now call on the Russian parliament to draw on the Constitutional Court's judgment and consider appropriate solutions in order to implement the judgment of the Strasbourg Court."

Prisoners in many Western countries are banned from voting, and the Russian Constitutional Court judgment is being watched less for the details of the particular case than for the precedent it sets.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) decried the ruling.

"It's very simple: Russia is violating its legal obligation to enforce rulings of the European Court of Human Rights," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. "The Constitutional Court's decision, while predictable, deals a devastating blow for people in Russia who turn to the European Court because they can't find justice in the Russian courts."

The ECHR is a key platform for victims of perceived human rights abuses seeking recourse beyond courts in their own countries.

The court in Strasbourg issues binding judgments in response to individual or state applications alleging violations of rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia signed in 1998.

Every year, it is flooded with cases from Russia.

The April 19 judgment was welcomed by some human rights activists who had feared a less conciliatory move by Russian authorities, or even that Russia might reject the jurisdiction of the ECHR outright.

"I think this is not a bad decision, and, generally, in some ways maybe it is positive from the point of view of maintaining relations with the Russian Federation and the ECHR," Ilya Shablinsky, a member of the Russian president's Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"Russia recognized the jurisdiction of the ECHR," Shablinsky said. "Many had expected a decision that would point to a breakdown of these relations and Russia's attempts -- attempts, at the least -- to leave the jurisdiction of the ECHR."

Crimea's Prosecutor-General Natalya Poklonskaya has called for the closure of RFE/RL's Crimea website.

The office for Crimea's de facto prosecutor-general has said that journalist Mykola Semena has been ordered not to leave the peninsula while he is being investigated by the Russia-backed authorities.

In a statement on April 19, the Moscow-backed Prosecutor-General's Office said Semena, who was an outside contributor to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, is being investigated for alleged "calls for undermining the Russian territorial integrity via mass media."

"Police conducted forced searches at the homes of seven people across Crimea, including some RFE/RL correspondents," said RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic in a statement on April 19. "One of those journalists is now facing up to five years in prison on criminal charges related to his work."

Mykola Semena
Mykola Semena

The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier on April 19 that police searched the homes of several local journalists and confiscated computers and data "proving that materials of an extremist character had been under preparation."

Crimea's Prosecutor-General Natalya Poklonskaya has called for the closure of RFE/RL's Crimea website.

After Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, the Russian parliament passed a law making it a criminal offense to question Russia's territorial integrity, which also means opposing the occupation.

"RFE/RL's Crimea website is one of the last remaining sources of independent news in Russian-occupied Crimea," Pejic added. "RFE/RL will not stop providing professional coverage to its audiences in need. We will not stop defending our colleagues."

The Committee to Protect Journalists decried Russia's targeting of journalists covering Crimea.

"We call on Russian security forces to stop harassing journalists in Crimea for their reporting and expressed opinions," said Nina Ognianova, the committee's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. "Russia has a record of equating criticism with extremism, and of using its broad laws to intimidate and silence the press."

With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and AP

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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