U.N. says Russian efforts on human rights fall short

MOSCOW Thu Feb 17, 2011 2:49pm EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief said Thursday that attempts by President Dmitry Medvedev to improve civil society in Russia had been unsuccessful, and urged the country to improve its rights record. "His efforts are appreciated but not advanced sufficiently to be described as a success," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told reporters toward the end of her five-day visit to Russia.

"There are still too many problems in the sphere of human rights."

Medvedev has styled himself a champion of democracy, fighter against corruption and modernizer of the economy since he was steered into the Kremlin three years ago by his mentor, then president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But his critics argue they have seen little improvement in Russia's human rights record, and Medvedev has acknowledged his administration has made little progress against endemic corruption.

Pillay said there had been some progress in Medvedev's modernization plans, but stressed there were "also some serious setbacks ... and apparent serious miscarriages of justice."

These include the murders, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and investigative reporters, she said.

Rights groups have criticized authorities for failing to solve a number of murders of media workers, including the 2006 shooting of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya.

UNSOLVED KILLINGS

There have been 19 unsolved murders of journalists in Russia since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. It lists Russia as eighth on its "Impunity Index," a listing of states where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.

Pillay said the investigations of Politkovskaya, rights worker Natalia Estemirova and the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky were "untransparent" and urged the authorities "to expose the truth about all these cases, as a key test of their resolve to improve accountability of their own actions."

Pillay also said she hoped the case of ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would "reach the Supreme Court of Russia some day and that these matters are cleared," she told Reuters, declining to go into detail.

Khodorkovsky, in jail since 2003, was sentenced in December to six more years behind bars in what his supporters said was a politically motivated theft and money-laundering trial. The West sharply criticized the decision.

Weighing into a controversial debate in Russia, Pillay also said she asked the Ministry of Health to not withhold treatment, such as the heroin substitute methadone, from addicts amid a worsening HIV/AIDS crisis in Russia.

The UN's World Health Organization says Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, fueled by up to three million heroin addicts, many of whom use dirty needles, local health organizations say.

Unlike most countries, Russia refuses to finance harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, or to legalize methadone, evoking condemnation from global health bodies.

(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Andrew Roche)

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