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U.S. raises rights concerns in Russian N. Caucasus

MOSCOW, March 11 (Reuters) - Russia’s North Caucasus remained “an area of particular concern” in 2009, and the government’s poor human rights record there worsened as it fought Islamist militants, the United States said on Thursday.

Nearly a decade after the second of two wars against rebels in Chechnya, simmering violence in the mainly Muslim region has undermined the Kremlin’s control over a vulnerable border area adjacent to the energy transport routes of the South Caucasus and nearby Turkey.

Local government and insurgent forces reportedly engaged in killing, torture, abuse, politically motivated abductions, and other brutal or humiliating treatment, often with impunity, the U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights survey.

“In Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, the number of extrajudicial killings and disappearances increased markedly, as did the number of attacks on law enforcement personnel,” the report said. “Authorities in the North Caucasus appeared to act outside of federal government control.”

“Federal and local security forces in Chechnya, as well as private militia of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, allegedly targeted families of suspected insurgents for reprisal and committed other abuses,” the State Department said.

Russian and foreign human rights bodies say poverty, aggravated by high unemployment and endemic corruption, is a major factor fuelling tension and pushing young people to join Islamist insurgents.

President Dmitry Medvedev has called instability on Russia’s southern flank the nation’s worst internal political problem. Suicide bombings, killings of local officials and attacks on security forces have become everyday reality in the region.

Giving an overall assessment of Russia’s track record on democracy last year, the report also noted a number of high-profile killings of human rights activists.

“Eight journalists, many of whom reported critically on the government, were killed during the year; with one exception, the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute any subjects. Beating and intimidation of journalists remained a problem,” it said.

The government also limited freedom of association and restricted religious groups. Corruption was widespread in Russia throughout the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, the survey said. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)