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European Human Rights Commissioner Criticizes Russia's 'Atmosphere Of Impunity'

Thomas Hammarberg: "Time is passing and there really is now a need to show what has been done and...bring those who are responsible to justice."
Thomas Hammarberg: "Time is passing and there really is now a need to show what has been done and...bring those who are responsible to justice."
To mark the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich spoke with Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg about that case, as well as about other high-profile murder investigations and key human rights issues in Russia.

RFE/RL: We are now speaking on a very sad occasion -- the fifth anniversary of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. What must the Russian authorities do so that Europe will say that Russia is trying to identify and prosecute those who are responsible?

Thomas Hammarberg:
The most important thing is to clarify the case totally so that those who are responsible are brought to justice and punished. And that would include everyone who was involved -- not only the killer himself, but also those who guided the killer, those who financed the killing, those who ordered the killing. Everyone involved, not least those who have the political or moral responsibility behind the decision that she should be killed.

It is absolutely crucial that they are brought to justice, otherwise there will still be an atmosphere of impunity and that would send an extremely negative message. Now, five years have passed and that's already a very long time. And it is absolutely crucial now that this matter is clarified promptly -- of course, according to all the basic rules of justice.

Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya
RFE/RL: You have had talks with officials in Moscow. What information do you have from these contacts?

Yes, I have sort of an ongoing dialogue on this case. It has been for some time with the prosecutor-general, [Yury] Chaika, and in the recent couple of years, with the Investigative Committee, led by [Aleksandr] Bastrykin. I've raised this issue every time we've met and I assume they have registered my concern and my feeling of urgency when it comes to this. And the response I've gotten so far is that they are working on it, they give it priority, and that more and more people are sort of identified as having been involved.

Now the test of all this is there. It is time to start the trial again -- the real trial -- and to bring forward all the evidence and assure that those who are genuinely responsible are brought to justice.

Activists hold portraits of Natalya Estemirova during a rally in Moscow in 2010.
Activists hold portraits of Natalya Estemirova during a rally in Moscow in 2010.
RFE/RL: There are two other high-profile deaths currently being investigated -- Natalya Estemirova and Sergei Magnitsky. Let's start with Estemirova. What signals have you received from Moscow about this case and why is it moving so slowly? Is it moving slowly because of Chechnya?

Again, this is, from our side, a priority case. Natalya Estemirova was a genuine human rights defender and she was, of course, a human rights activist. She combined human rights research with journalism and, again, she was -- as Anna Politkovskaya -- very important in order to bring out basic facts about human rights violations, basically in Chechnya. So I think it is again a case where it is urgent that the truth comes out.

I have raised it again several times and the answer I get is that the case is given priority -- responsibility for the investigation has been put on the federal level rather than the republican level -- and that they are doing their utmost. But time is passing and there really is now a need to show what has been done and now, in this case, bring those who are responsible to justice. And not only those who actually did it, but also those who were behind it.

RFE/RL: When I asked whether it was because of Chechnya, I was hoping to hear your opinion on the atmosphere in Chechnya.

On Chechnya, as with a couple other republics in the North Caucasus, we again published a report recently. I was there in the early part of this year and there are still there deep concerns about the human rights situation. There are still disappearances taking place and there are a great number of cases of disappearances and killings which have not been clarified.

That again means that an atmosphere of impunity is reigning and that in turn has very negative effects on people, including journalists, of course, because people are afraid that they may be apprehended, kidnapped, or killed if they are too active as human rights defenders or journalists.

Sergei Magnitsky
Sergei Magnitsky
RFE/RL: Let's turn to Sergei Magnitsky. What do you think about this case generally? Maybe you are planning to do something.

The case itself is extremely serious, of course. And I also noticed in fact that President Dmitry] Medvedev took a strong position, saying that this is a serious matter and needs to be investigated thoroughly, etc.

So it is one of those cases that absolutely needs to be clarified in depth because again, if there is no justice being made in this case -- even if he himself, of course, is no longer alive, but the facts [must be] established and those responsible brought to justice -- then the spillover effect is serious again, so this is one of those cases which really need to be clarified.

RFE/RL: The Russian authorities have said that a draft law about the possibility of the selective implementation in Russia of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights has been postponed, but not withdrawn. What do you think about the possibility of such an exception?

The convention and the caseload of the court here in Strasbourg is very clear that when it comes to human rights matters -- of course, the convention is only about human rights -- when it comes to those matters, the Strasbourg court is superior to any other juridical institution in Europe. So it cannot be argued that the court here in Strasbourg in a sense is below any national supreme court or constitutional court. That is not in line with what we have agreed upon.

RFE/RL: Another matter which has not moved much in three years -- the humanitarian situation in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war. In your opinion, what is the situation and what can be done?

Rather soon after the war in August 2008, we made an analysis of the human rights and humanitarian situation and had a six-principle approach which we presented and have pressed all the parties involved to respect. One point there was the right to return of those who had been displaced. And there are still problems there, although quite a lot have been allowed to come back.

A second point related to caring for those who couldn't go back, at least not immediately -- that they should have a reasonable life, including possibilities to feed their children, etc., where they were. And there there has actually been some progress, particularly on the Georgian side.

Then, we argued for demining -- taking up from the landscape all the military devices which were spread during the war which became a threat against children, animals, and others who were around in nature. Most of that has happened also, so that's by and large positive.

Then we said that it's absolutely crucial that detainees on both sides -- people arrested because of the conflict or having trespassed the administrative border line -- that they are freed. And there we played a fairly active role and I have personally taken part in the release of more than 120 people, if you add the two sides together, South Ossetia, the other territory, and the rest of Georgia.

And then we have argued for an international presence, not least of human rights structures, in order to be available for people to complain if they have problems. I think that's still acutely important because the situation is extremely politicized and this has meant that some people have been sort of hostage to the situation and have had problems. And there I think there should be more positive approaches from both sides when it comes to allowing the key international agencies to travel up and down and to be available to people to care for their needs.

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate the right to freedom of assembly in Russia now as compared to a year ago and what obstacles remain?

There have been some changes in the legislation in the right direction, but I think the real test will be the forthcoming election campaign and whether there will be opportunities for people, including those representing small parties to organize -- peaceful, of course! -- rallies and demonstrations.

And the main point we made in our document that we published recently on this is that one has to stick to principle that one shouldn't have to get permission to demonstrate. The freedom of expression means that you have the right to exercise that freedom, including to organize demonstrations. There may be problems in relation to traffic and similar things and then there should be some kind of negotiations between the responsible authorities and the organizers. But it should be on the basis of respect for the possibilities to express one's opinion.

There are also other problems like sometimes counterdemonstrations are organized in order to disturb the original intention by some people who would like to demonstrate. And this tends to create a situation of tension and, in fact, can be quite dangerous also when it comes to the risk of violence. And any attempt to disturb a peaceful demonstration in that manner for political or other reasons should, of course, be prevented.

So here lies quite a lot of responsibility on the local authorities to protect the right to demonstrate and to establish a constructive relationship with those who would like to organize rallies and demonstrations.

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