PRAGUE -- The Council of Europe's human rights chief says there is a "lot of work to do" in Russia as he criticized Moscow's lack of cooperation amid reports of rights abuses in Chechnya and Russia-occupied Crimea.
"Russia is the only country that has not cooperated with my office in the last couple of years; every other country has cooperated," said Nils Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, which has 47 member countries.
"And I would like to see that [uncooperativeness] change. I think there is a lot of work to do in Russia," he told RFE/RL in an interview in Prague on September 26.
Muiznieks called reports in recent months alleging the abuse, torture, and killing of gay men in Chechnya "very, very disturbing." He said Russia's Investigative Committee was playing its role and that the country's ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, had just visited Chechnya and met with its controversial leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
"[Moskalkova is] determined to get to the bottom it," he said.
"I think the Investigative Committee and the ombudswoman have both played their role. The problem is more the broader sense of lawlessness in the North Caucasus, in general, and in Chechnya, in particular," said Muiznieks.
"It's not only lesbians and gays who are persecuted in Chechnya, it's human rights defenders and journalists and others," he said. "So there's a broader issue of impunity for human rights violations in that region."
The comments by the Council of Europe's rights chief come amid the bizarre case of Chechen singer Zelimkhan Bakayev, who vanished shortly after flying from Moscow to the Chechen capital, Grozny, on August 8.
Muiznieks also said he was deeply concerned by reports of human rights violations in Ukraine's Crimean region, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.
Russian officials have barred Muiznieks from visiting Crimea since a 2014 trip.
"[Russian officials] were very unhappy with the report I published afterwards," he said.
"I have not been able to go there in recent years, but the report that was just published by the UN very much coincides with my monitoring of the situation from afar," he said.
The UN Human Rights Office report, issued on September 25, said the situation in Crimea "has significantly deteriorated" under Russian occupation and cited serious rights abuses that included torture, forced disappearances, detentions, and at least one extrajudicial execution.
Muiznieks said he would support the establishment of an international monitoring mission to observe the rights situation in Crimea.
"Many NGOs have advocated for this and I think it would be very useful to have some eyes and ears on the ground there watching the evolution of the situation because the independent human rights defenders and journalists have all been squeezed out of the situation. Either they are in detention or they have left," he said. "Russia until now has put a veto -- it doesn't allow UN human rights monitors access there, it doesn't allow the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and it doesn't allow me -- so I'm hoping that will change because there is a need for people on the ground to follow the situation."
He added: "The worst thing we can do to the people of Crimea is to leave them in isolation from the broader world."
Despite the array of rights violations documented by the UN Human Rights Office and other international rights watchdogs, Muiznieks doesn't think Russia should be expelled from the Council of Europe, as some people have suggested.
Russia's relations with the Council of Europe are already battered. In June, Moscow declared it would suspend its payments to the organization because it said its delegates at the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) were being "persecuted" in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. The delegates were banned in 2014 from voting in parliament or taking part in other activities.
"Ideally, if a country remains in the Council of Europe it cooperates in good faith, it carries out reforms, and it works in dialogue and cooperation with the different bodies of the Council of Europe to improve the human rights situation," said Muiznieks.
'Dire' Rights Situation In Azerbaijan
Muiznieks also turned his attention to the poor rights situation in Azerbaijan.
"Azerbaijan has a very dire human rights situation," he said. "Human rights defenders, independent bloggers, and journalists are under enormous pressures there, and there was a time when all of my primary partners in the country were behind bars on trumped-up charges."
Muiznieks said he had tried unsuccessfully to speak with Azerbaijani officials about the rights situation.
"I've decided that the more effective way would be to talk with the Azerbaijani authorities through the European Court of Human Rights, so I intervened systematically on cases of [human rights] defenders there -- seven different cases -- as well as through analyzing the situation through the media, through the Western media, to try to affect public opinion and elite opinion in other Council of Europe member states," he said.
"Regardless of the violations that we documented, I saw a lack of political will on the part of other member states to…make Azerbaijan accountable. And that still is the case, largely. There is some small movement there, but I think Azerbaijan is not living up to its obligations."
Every European country is in the Council of Europe except for Belarus, Kosovo, and Vatican City, and Muiznieks said Minsk would not be admitted if it applied because it continues to carry out the death penalty. He was also particularly critical of Hungary for its refusal to accept its share of Syrian, Afghan, and North African refugees.
"Building a fence is one thing, but organizing a propaganda campaign to immunize your citizens against solidarity [within Europe to accept refugee quotas]…I think is completely unacceptable," he said.
Muiznieks concluded by saying the human rights situation in Europe has gotten worse "in a number of areas" since he assumed his six-year term in 2012.
"Not only have we had the backsliding in countries like Russia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and Hungary, and Poland, [but] you've had increasing challenges to the authority of the [European Court for Human Rights]," he said. "You've had indirect challenges through delays in implementation but also direct challenges, like the Russian law allowing its Constitutional Court to rule on whether a [European Court of Human Rights] judgment can be implemented. But you have other challenges from countries like the U.K. and prisoners' voting rights, or Switzerland where you have a popular initiative challenging the authority of the [European Court of Human Rights] as well.
"So the whole [human rights] edifice is a bit shaky and people have forgotten why we created European institutions and the human rights system."