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Policemen detain Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in June 2019. Navalny's situation was cited leading rights groups who have slammed Moscow's "harassment and prosecution of peaceful political and civil society activists, protesters and other dissenting voices in Russia."

A group of leading rights organizations has urged the United Nations to condemn the deterioration of civil rights in Russia, which has “constructed a legal landscape that is inconsistent” with international standards.

In an open letter to the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights House Foundation, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted that, while a recent session of the UN Human Rights Council put a spotlight on the “alarming trend” in Russia, the situation has only worsened since.

"We hoped that the Russian authorities would have changed their approach following such clear expressions of concern from such a broad number of states," the open letter, dated July 7, said.

"Yet, since the statement (of concern) was delivered, the authorities have further expanded their crackdown, including through laws targeting members and supporters of civil society organizations labeled 'extremist' or 'undesirable' –- in some cases, targeting them by retroactive application of newly introduced unduly restrictive legislation," it added.

Russia has come under heavy international criticism in the past year for several moves that have been seen as limiting civil rights.

The open letter pointed to the incarceration of Aleksei Navalny, and the use of the so-called "foreign agents" law and the "undesirable organizations" designation as examples of the "harassment and prosecution of peaceful political and civil society activists, protesters and other dissenting voices in Russia."

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"In this regard, continued, and heightened engagement by this (UN Human Rights) Council is needed," the letter said.

We "urge the Russian authorities to revert and repeal the legislative initiatives that unduly restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and bring Russia's legislation into full compliance with its international human rights obligations," it added.

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires noncommercial organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.

Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media. In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services and Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.

In a report analyzing the amendments, published on July 6, the EU’s Venice Commission, which is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, was sharply critical of Russia for the laws and called on Moscow to curb the scope of the laws.

Russia has said the laws and new amendments are designed to increase transparency and enhance national security.

However, the activists said in the open letter that the laws were being used to silence opposition voices such as Navalny and Andrei Pivovarov, the former executive director of the pro-democracy Open Russia movement who was detained after being removed from a Warsaw-bound plane just before takeoff from St. Petersburg in late May.

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Pivovarov faces charges of "participating in the activities of an undesirable group." He denies any wrongdoing.

Navalny, Putin's most prominent domestic critic, was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin -- an accusation that Russian officials reject.

Navalny was sentenced in February to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction widely considered politically motivated. In April, tens of thousands of people demonstrated for his release, following similar mass protests in January against his arrest.

With the country mired in economic woes that have seen a decline in real incomes and rising inflation, Putin's ruling United Russia party has been polling at historic lows with parliamentary elections looming on September 19.

In the run-up to the elections, the Kremlin has cracked down -- sometimes brutally -- on opposition political figures and independent media.

Earlier this month, Putin endorsed a law that bars leaders and founders of organizations declared extremist or terrorist by Russian courts from running for elected posts for a period of five years. Other members or employees of such organizations will face a three-year ban.

Nasha Niva editor in chief Yahor Martsinovich was also detained on July 8. (file photo)

Belarus has blocked the website of the country's oldest newspaper and raided the offices of several regional newspapers as authorities moved to silence nonstate media outlets critical of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a continuing crackdown on dissent following the strongman's reelection last year that the opposition and the West say was fraudulent.

Nasha Niva, which covered the protests in the wake of the election, said on July 8 that security forces had raided its office and detained its editor-in-chief, Yahor Martsinovich.

Nasha Niva had published videos showing police brutally detaining protesters during the antigovernment demonstrations.

Since the election in 2020, security forces have cracked down hard on journalists, rights defenders, and pro-democracy demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 people and pushing many activists and most of the top opposition figures out of the country.

Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.

Leading opposition figures have been either jailed or forced to leave the country.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that besides Martsinovich, Nasha Niva journalists Andrey Skurko, Andrey Dynko, and office accountant Volha Rakovich were brought in for questioning.

The move comes after authorities in May cracked down on top independent news portal, whose website was blocked and 12 of its journalists were also arrested. Also in May, authorities intercepted a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius and forced it to land in Minsk where they detained dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend who were on board.

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Nasha Niva was founded in 1906 and is the oldest and most authoritative Belarusian media outlet, with an online audience of more than 100,000.

Both Nasha Niva and extensively covered months of protests against Lukashenka, which were triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged.

Agents of the KGB, the Belarusian state security agency, also searched two regional media outlets, the Brest Gazette in the city of Brest on the border with Poland and Intex-Press in the city of Baranovichi.

In the eastern city of Orsha, authorities detained Ihar Kazmerchak, the editor of the news portal, and searched the home of photographer Dzyanis Dubkou. In Bobruisk, also in the east, the KGB detained Alesya Latsinskaya, a journalist who worked for the independent news portal.

In the northeastern city of Vitebsk, freelance journalist Vital Skryl was detained and authorities raided the apartment of another local journalist, Dzmitry Kazakevich.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the election, who says she actually won the poll and fled the country after the vote under official pressure, said in a video message released on Twitter on July 8 that the regime was trying to silence the voice of the democratic opposition.

"The regime continues the crackdown on independent media. It is so afraid of the truth that more than 20 major media like were already attacked," Tsikhanouskaya said.

"Nasha Niva is not just a website, it is the oldest Belarusian newspaper mentioned in every schoolbook on the history of Belarus. And this is how the regime treats our history. The regime tries to silence us and hide the truth about the fraudulent presidential election, about violence, tortures, and repressions. But we remember," Tsikhanousakaya said.

She also called on the international community "to provide practical support" for Belarus's independent media and journalists.

"I ask you to consider launching an emergency program, include in the plan legal aid to repressed journalists, technical assistance for media outlets, assistance to those media and reporters forced to flee Belarus and continue their work, support for Telegram and YouTube channels. They are creating the modern history of Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters

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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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