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Rights Group Warns Of Challenges To Democracy

Russian police try to separate gay-rights activists and supporters of a new law against disseminating "homosexual propaganda" to minors outside the State Duma in Moscow. The bill is one considered by Human Rights Watch to be of "an absolutely regressive and repressive nature" passed recently.
In its annual report, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) evaluates the human-rights situation in more than 90 countries and warns of the challenges to democracy many of them face.

Reviewing recent developments in the Middle East, the international rights-monitoring group says the willingness of new governments in the region to respect human rights will determine whether the Arab Spring uprisings will give rise to democracy or new forms of authoritarian rule.

It says other countries can be supportive both by setting positive examples with their own practices and by promoting rights in their relations with the new governments. It warns that "turning a blind eye to repression may be politically convenient but it does enormous damage."

In Russia, HRW says Vladimir Putin has unleashed "an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism" after his return to the presidency.

Anna Sevortian, director of HRW's Russia office, in a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Moscow, was harshly critical of Russia's use of laws to restrict civil society.

"We believe that this has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in its recent history, which was evidenced by a series of bills of an absolutely regressive and repressive nature," Sevortian said.

"These bills, which have now become laws, are radically changing the human rights and freedom situation in Russia."

In June, a Russian law came into force that dramatically raised potential fines for people found guilty of participating in unapproved public demonstrations.

Another law that went into effect in November requires foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations involved in what are deemed political activities to register as "foreign agents."

Continuing Repression

Human Rights Watch also criticized the rights record of governments across Central Asia. "Across Central Asia, 2012 was marked by restrictions on free speech and expression, and prosecution of government critics," HRW Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittlam told RFE/RL from Almaty.

Yulia Gorbunova, HRW researcher on Belarus and Ukraine, highlighted continued repression by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.

"We feel that the human rights crisis in Belarus has deepened in 2012. The fact that in the last parliamentary election the opposition won no seats in parliament basically shows that the status quo of the repressive regime led by Alyaksandr Lukashenka was preserved," Gorbunova said.

"And we very strongly feel that Belarusian human-rights activists need very strong international support now more than ever before."

In Iran, HRW says the authorities continued to repress civil society. In 2012, the report notes, Iranian authorities barred opposition candidates from participating in parliamentary elections, while prominent opposition leaders have been held under house arrest for more than a year and a half.

It also notes that executions, especially for drug-related offenses, continued at high rates. It said Iran leads the world in the execution of juvenile offenders, with more than 100 on death row in late 2012.

In Afghanistan, HRW says the government's failure to effectively respond to violence against women "undermines the already-perilous state of women's rights."

It also says "government efforts to stifle free speech through new legislation and targeting individual journalists were a worrying new development in 2012."

The 665-page report is HRW's 23rd annual review of human-rights practices around the world.

With reporting by Pavel Butorin
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    RFE/RL journalists report the news in 27 languages in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.

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