October 15, 2009 / 6:08 PM / 10 years ago

Russia in U.N. rights dock for journalist murders

* U.N. experts grill Russia on Politkovskaya, other murders * Ask about independence of judges, Chechnya abductions

* Debate follows Moscow visit of Hillary Clinton

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Russia was grilled on Thursday by U.N. human rights experts over murders of journalists and activists, the independence of its judiciary and abductions during counter-terrorism campaigns in Chechnya.

Georgy Matyushkin, deputy justice minister, led a 24-member delegation sent to defend Russia’s record at the U.N. Human Rights Committee, where debate continues on Friday.

The discussion came one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Moscow and called on Russia to prevent attacks on activists challenging the Kremlin. [ID:nLE140486]

"The physical danger to people who speak out on human rights in Russia is still striking," said Ruth Wedgwood, an American expert on the U.N. panel. "People who are either journalists or human rights activists seem to have a very high mortality rate."

Wedgwood cited the unsolved murder cases of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, her Novaya Gazeta newspaper colleague Anastasia Baburova, Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova.

Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother of two, was shot entering her Moscow home on Oct. 7, 2006. Her family voiced doubts last week about the guilt of two men accused of playing a role in her killing and about the Kremlin’s will to catch the main suspects. "I think that the past still hangs heavily on society. Things from the past can set the tone of lawlessness which is very hard to tamp down," added Wedgwood, an international law professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Committee members also voiced concerns at the effectiveness of criminal investigations in Russia, discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace, police raids on gay clubs and hate speech by some officials.

Nigel Rodley, a British committee member, cited allegations that people were mistreated in police custody in Russia, but acknowledged that the situation had improved since he visited the country as U.N. torture investigator in 1994.

A new mechanism for monitoring human rights in places of detention was encouraging and should help curb abuses, he said.

"Those responsible for questioning (detainees) and interrogations need to know that they don’t know when they might be caught in the act," Rodley said.

The U.N. committee, composed of 18 independent experts, is examining the compliance of five states including Russia with an international treaty on civil and political rights. Its findings will be issued at the end of the three-week session on Oct. 30. (Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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