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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Mikhail Fedotov, whom he controversially dismissed this week as chairman of Russia's Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Mikhail Fedotov, whom he controversially dismissed this week as chairman of Russia's Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Amid uproar over their ouster from President Vladimir Putin's Human Rights Council, several Russian rights activists have warned of a backslide on political freedoms in the wake of a major reshuffle that leaves the advisory body shorn of its most critical voices.

Putin overhauled the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on October 21, removing several members who have criticized his government and replacing its head, Mikhail Fedotov, with a former TV presenter many see as a Kremlin loyalist.

The four council members who were dismissed had played active roles in shedding light on alleged abuses by security forces and courts against participants in a wave of protests for free elections that rocked Moscow this summer. Human rights lawyers Pavel Chikov and Yevgeny Bobrov, political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann, and Ilya Shablinsky, an expert on electoral rights, had met with protesters and attempted to protect their rights.

Some say that is what paved the way for them to be sidelined in the latest decree.

"The Human Rights Council demanded a reaction to the conflicts and scandals that unfolded" during the protest wave, political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told the Russian daily Kommersant on October 22. "So, a decision was taken to downgrade these queries and complaints."

The ousted members, all of whom are outspoken and prominent, were clear in their views that the reshuffle was far from a simple initiative to bring an influx of fresh faces.

Human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov (file photo)
Human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov (file photo)

Chikov said the Human Rights Council had long annoyed Putin and his government, despite its role as an advisory body with little power to shape policy.

"The country's leadership is less and less tolerant of irritants. It wants comfort, a soft seat, and pleasant words. It doesn't want to hear unpleasant ones," he wrote on Facebook.

Shablinsky said that he had become a thorn in the authorities' side, and that his dismissal did not come as a surprise. As a possible reason for the decision, he cited the opposition he voiced to the exclusion of independent candidates from Moscow city council elections on September 8 and the crackdown on the street protests over the summer.

Ilya Shablinsky (file photo)
Ilya Shablinsky (file photo)

"There were plenty of reasons to oust me," he told Kommersant.

Rumors had long swirled about Fedotov's imminent removal from the council, which performs a largely symbolic role but often succeeds in drawing attention to human rights issues and bringing pressure to bear on the authorities -- even if repercussions are rare.

Officially, Fedotov was dismissed because at 70, he had passed the age limit for service in the federal government. But Kremlin critics suspect the council's head since 2010 was sidelined for other reasons.

"This wording about his reaching the maximum age does not hold up," Grigory Melkonyants of independent election monitor Golos told Kommersant. "The tenure for presidential advisers can be extended until the end of the presidential term."

Earlier this week, 30 of the council's 50 members signed a letter to Putin asking him to extend Fedotov's term, considering his "personal merits" and "unquestioned authority."

'Social Rights'

Among the new members added to the council is Kirill Vyshinsky, a journalist who edited the Ukrainian subsidiary of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency, and who returned to Russia in September as part of a high-profile prisoner swap with Kyiv. Reports suggest other current or former state media employees are among those slated for new positions on the council.

In an interview on October 22, the newly appointed head of the council, Valery Fadeyev, said he planned to focus less on political rights than what he called "social rights."

Valery Fadeyev, the new head of Russian President Putin's Human Rights Council (file photo)
Valery Fadeyev, the new head of Russian President Putin's Human Rights Council (file photo)

"I'm in no way diminishing the importance of political rights and freedoms, but I think social rights are not noticed enough," he told Kommersant. "People have too few opportunities to use their rights -- to a decent wage, to accommodation, to health care, etc. And I think this is no less important than the defense of political rights and freedoms."

When asked about the summer protest wave, Fadeyev -- a senior member of ruling party United Russia -- said he "wasn't particularly interested in it at the time" and "didn't look into it."

He appeared to praise what he said was a decrease in poverty levels under the Communist Party in China, and advocated for a "combination of effective democracy and a strong state" in Russia.

Following his appointment, anger among Russia's civil-society activists appeared to spill over into dissent within the Human Rights Council itself. On October 21, Tamara Morshchakova, a retired Constitutional Court judge who was not one of those dismissed, said she was quitting of her own accord. She cited the appointment of Fadeyev as the reason.

"I only know Mr. Fadeyev from his public appearances on TV," she told Kommersant. "And I've seen no favorable attitudes toward the problem of human rights whatsoever in his rhetoric."

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

To his friends and colleagues in Turkmenistan, Kamil is a successful cardiologist working at a prestigious clinic and an eligible bachelor from a well-connected family.

Only a few people in his close family circle are aware of Kamil's real struggle: He is secretly gay.

In Turkmenistan, where homosexuality is a crime and shunned by the Central Asian country's conservative society, being gay means having to choose between living a lie or facing up to two years in prison and a lifetime of disgrace.

RFE/RL changed Kamil's name to protect him from possible retribution.

The 24-year-old native of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, spoke to RFE/RL about his ordeal, which includes being beaten up by police and coming under pressure by his parents to marry a woman in order to conceal his sexual identity.

"I have known since my childhood that I am gay, but it was difficult for me to accept it," Kamil said.

After finishing high school in Turkmenistan, Kamil went to Belarus to study medicine. He said it was in that authoritarian-ruled country where he finally "tasted freedom" about his sexual orientation and "began to accept" his homosexuality.

After returning to Ashgabat in 2018, Kamil said he "found love" on a dating website and began exchanging romantic messages with a man.

"In our online communications he was very pleasant. We decided to meet in person," Kamil said.

But Kamil's much-anticipated date ended in disaster.

His online "lover" turned out to be a policeman whose job was to lure gay men online and bring them to "justice."

Turkmenistan hasn't dropped a Soviet-era law that criminalizes homosexuality. Along with Uzbekistan, they are the only two countries among the 15 former Soviet republics that consider being gay a crime.

There are several reports of gay men in Turkmenistan being subjected to physical and verbal abuse both by police and fellow citizens.

"We decided to meet at 7 p.m. and when I went to the agreed place, he wasn't there. I called him and he said he was on his way," Kamil recalled. "Then two plainclothes police officers came to me, handcuffed me, and drove me to a police station."

"They beat me up and verbally abused me inside the police vehicle and the beating continued at the police station," he said. "They also gave me electric shocks."

Family Pressure

Later that evening Kamil's family found out about his detention.

Kamil says he was spared a jail term only because his uncle -- a government official -- interfered and secured his release.

On the way home, "it was my father and uncle's turn to insult me," he said.

"At home that evening, my father shouted at me that it would have been better for him to take me somewhere and kill me than having a gay son," Kamil said. "My uncle and brothers told me that I dishonored them."

A pixelated image of "Kamil," a gay cardiologist in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
A pixelated image of "Kamil," a gay cardiologist in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The family took Kamil to a mullah to "cure" his homosexuality with religious prayers and forced him to seek counseling from psychologists to help him come to his "senses."

Kamil's father also suggested that he should sleep with a prostitute to become a "real" man.

"The final straw, however, was when my family decided that I must marry a woman," Kamil told RFE/RL.

Kamil said his father, uncle, and brothers -- the only people who knew his secret -- ignored his pleas that he didn't want to get married. They demanded that Kamil keep his sexual identity secret with a fake marriage so as to not shame the family.

Desperate to prevent the wedding, Kamil contacted the bride and told her he was gay and was being forced into the marriage as a cover-up for his homosexuality.

The wedding, planned for mid-October, was subsequently called off by the bride's family, though Kamil's ordeal was far from over. Kamil says his uncle beat him up on October 17 to punish him for ruining the family's marriage plan.

It was the family's second attempt this year to force Kamil to marry a woman.

Government Blacklist

Using his government contacts, the uncle also put Kamil's name on a blacklist of people banned from leaving the country. Preventing people from traveling abroad is a common practice by Turkmen authorities, who closely control their citizens' movements.

Kamil said he had previously left for Turkey without telling his family.

But his family "hired a Turkmen man" in Turkey who easily found Kamil and forced him to return home just two days after he arrived in Istanbul in February 2019.

"He threatened me and took me to the airport and forced me to get onto the plane. So, I was back in Ashgabat on February 20," Kamil said.

Kamil suspects the man was connected to the Turkmen Embassy in Turkey but RFE/RL cannot independently verify the claim.

Before leaving for Turkey, Kamil had contacted the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seeking help for his situation.

"At the OSCE office, a local employee spoke with me. He was speaking Turkmen, he didn't give his name, and just asked what I wanted," Kamil said.

"I told him about my situation and asked for help. When I told him that I'm gay, his facial expression changed, he suddenly became rude to me. He said there's legal punishment for homosexuality in Turkmenistan and that I should be happy that I'm not in jail," Kamil added.

RFE/RL was unable to contact the OSCE office in Ashgabat as the phone number on their website doesn't connect.

Unable to find support, Kamil said "there is simply no life in Turkmenistan" for members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.

Despite the imminent risk of imprisonment and social isolation, Kamil said he has no choice but to come out as gay.

"I hope I would feel free [openly admitting I'm gay] or, at least, that my story becomes the first step in achieving freedom for other people like me."

"Please spread my story," Kamil urged.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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About This Blog

"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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