* Curbs on civil society tighten since Putin's return - HRW
* Foreign Ministry dismisses Human Rights Watch findings
* HRW raises concerns about aftermath of Arab Spring
By Alessandra Prentice
MOSCOW, Jan 31 Authoritarianism increased last
year in Russia to levels unseen since the Soviet era with a raft
of harsh laws curbing political freedoms and harassment of
opposition activists and critics, Human Rights Watch said on
The crackdown coincided with the return of Vladimir Putin to
the Kremlin and the appointment of his predecessor and protege,
Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister, according to the New
"Since Putin's return ... not only has the tentative shift
towards liberalization of the Medvedev era been totally
reversed, but also authoritarianism in Russia has reached a
level unknown in recent history," said Rachel Denber, deputy
director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow accompanying the
publication of its annual report on human rights worldwide,
Denber also criticized the government's stance toward the West.
Since Putin started a six-year term in May, he has signed
laws restricting protests, demanding foreign-funded
non-governmental organizations register as "foreign agents," and
setting new rules on treason that critics say could place almost
anyone who associates with foreigners at risk of prosecution.
Several opposition leaders and activists face potential
prison terms if convicted on charges Putin's critics say are
trumped up. The president's spokesman has denied the Kremlin
uses courts and police to pressure critics.
"Measures to intimidate critics and restrict Russia's
vibrant civil society have reached unprecedented levels," Hugh
Williamson, director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division,
said in a statement.
"Pressure and reprisals against activists and
non-governmental organizations need to stop."
"This has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in
recent history," he said of 2012. The statement said the Kremlin
"unleashed the worst political crackdown" since the breakup of
the Soviet Union in 1991.
On Thursday evening, Moscow police dispersed protesters and
detained about 30 activists who tried to demonstrate for the
right to free assembly, which they say is routinely violated by
HRW: CONCERNS ABOUT ARAB SPRING AFTERMATH
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich
said he had not read the report but that Russia would probably
comment later and "show that the human rights situation in
Russia is not the worst."
He said the Russian ministry's own annual reports have shown
that "there are serious systemic problems in the sphere of human
rights in the United States and many European Union countries."
"Before you criticize others, you should look at yourself,"
Lukashevich said at a weekly briefing.
The Human Rights Watch annual report also looked at
developments in the Middle East and North Africa in the
aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. It raised concerns about
a possible return to non-democratic rule in some countries.
"The uncertainties of freedom are no reason to revert to the
enforced predictability of authoritarian rule," said the group's
director, Kenneth Roth. "The path ahead may be treacherous, but
the alternative is to consign entire countries to a grim future
The report criticized Egypt's new constitution, saying vague
provisions on speech, religion, and the family had dangerous
implications for women's rights and the exercise of social
freedoms protected under international law.
The constitution also reflects a seeming abandonment of
efforts to exercise civilian control over the military, it
Elsewhere in the region, it said, Libya has become a "weak
state" and the situation in Syria, where over 60,000 people have
been killed in a nearly 2-year-long civil war, has deteriorated.
Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Security Council to overcome
its impasse and refer the Syrian conflict to the International
Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes.