World News

Russia could shun European rights court--top judge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s top judge said it may no longer honor judgments handed down by Europe’s influential Court of Human Rights, but a Kremlin official played down the idea, calling it a “backwards” step.

Russia -- a member of the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog under which the Court operates -- lodges the largest amount of cases with the court in what activists say is a sign of the country’s poor rights record.

“Russia, if it wishes, may withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights,” the Kommersant daily quoted Constitutional Court chief justice Valery Zorkin as telling a law forum in St Petersburg over the weekend.

He added that the option of recourse to the European Court could be seen as “encouraging those in Russia who want any excuse” to not use their own courts at home.

The Strasbourg-based court is widely regarded as a last shot at justice for those who are dissatisfied with rulings in their home countries, or are unable to pursue them.

To cut off Russians from the European Court, the Russian government would have to pull out of the 47-member Council of Europe which it joined in 1996 -- a move which would severely damage its relations with western Europe.

A member of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration said Zorkin’s proposal would most likely not be approved by the Kremlin. “I do not think we are developing backwards just yet,” he told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The press service of the European Court of Human Rights declined to comment on Monday on Zorkin’s comments.

Tanya Lokshina of the Moscow branch of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Reuters that Zorkin’s suggestion was like “an arrow pointing backwards ... If it happens it means Russia would isolate itself from the rest of Europe.”

Lokshina added that Russia’s approval of a long-stalled reform of the European court in January showed that Moscow remained committed to being part of the Council of Europe.

The powerful chief justice raised a stir last month when the European Court questioned his ruling in a male sex discrimination case, prompting him to accuse the Court of meddling in Russian affairs.

“Russia has the right to develop a defense mechanism against such decisions (by the Court),” he said in a piece written for the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. He said the Court “ignored the historical, cultural and social situation” in Russia.

In the discrimination case, Zorkin denied divorced soldier Konstantin Markin a three-year parental leave to look after his children -- as is granted to Russian women -- because he felt it would weaken the army’s image.

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights registered 13,641 cases against Russian authorities, although it remains unknown how many it will deem admissible.

Notable fines the Court has ordered Russia to pay in recent months were to Russia’s gay community for banning homosexual parades and to Chechen families whose relatives were tortured and abducted by Russian security forces. (Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Mark Heinrich)