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Russia Criticized At UN Over Racism, Media Killings

The recent murders of a human rights lawyer and a journalist highlighted Russia's lack of media freedom
GENEVA (Reuters) -- Russia must do more to stop violence against minorities, torture by the police and army, murders of journalists, and other crimes, delegates to a UN rights body have said.

"We are concerned at the trend of racism and xenophobia, which is resulting in a continuing rise in racial attacks," a delegate from South Africa, which often backs Russia, said during a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 4

Other issues raised at the first Russian appearance for a review process of the 47-member council included political abductions in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Internet child pornography, and limits on independent civil-society bodies.

Russian officials agreed racism was a problem but said they were tackling it through education and monitoring of extremist groups, and noted that such violence was not always fatal.

Russia is a democratic state "based on the rule of law," and its people enjoy equal rights, a report presented to the council by Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov declared. "Freedom of the press and media is guaranteed," it added.

Every effort is being made to combat extremism and ethnic violence, Konovalov said, and a special police unit had been set up to track activities of such groups under a law on fighting extremism and terrorism.

But this was contested at a briefing by independent Russian human rights groups -- including the widely respected Memorial, set up just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- who said the law was being used to limit their activities.

Reviews For All

All members of the UN are expected to undergo such a review every four years, though the process has been criticized by rights groups for being superficial and tainted by politics.

China faces a review on February 6, and the United States -- which is not a member of the council -- comes later.

A new review process has been billed as a key change in the nearly three-year-old council, which replaced a discredited predecessor in 2006.

But true to form, many Asian and African countries that rely on Russian support to fend off criticism of their own policies generally had little but praise for Russia's record.

European Union countries, backed by New Zealand -- and even Algeria, which, like South Africa, is part of an Islamic and African group that usually works with Russia in the body -- urged Moscow to come down hard on racists.

The issue of legal and media freedom -- highlighted by the daylight street killing in Moscow two weeks ago of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova -- was raised by Australia, Japan, and Britain, among others.

Konovalov said interference with the media was barred by law, but investigation was hindered "by a lack of witnesses."