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07/31/2012 Russia (Moscow Times) – Has Russia truly changed its ways on human rights? Certainly its new law restricting public protests fuels grave and widespread concerns. Moreover, in at least one key area, religious freedom, Russia has not changed in many respects. This assessment should provoke serious discussion as the United States faces decisions about its relationship with its former Cold War foe.
Russia is poised to enter the World Trade Organization later this month. To reap trade benefits from its entry, the United States would have to exempt Russia from the trade restrictions of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which includes Russia due to its past restrictions on the right to emigrate during the Soviet period.
What should the United States do? It should continue to hold Russia accountable.
Over the past decade, the Kremlin has exploited legitimate security concerns about violent religious extremism by restricting the rights of nonviolent religious minority members. Its major tool is an extremism law. Enacted in 2002, the law imposes sanctions on religious extremism, which it defines as promoting the “exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens” based on religion. The law now applies to peaceful actors and actions. In addition, individuals who defend or sympathize openly with those charged also may face charges.

Simply stated, security concerns aren’t the sole driver of Russia’s religious freedom abuses. All too often, security is a pretext for unacceptable religious repression. Authorities view certain groups, particularly those seeking converts, as threats to the country’s religious and cultural identity as embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate. A case in point is the prosecution of human rights defender Maxim Yefimov in the Karelia region after he criticized the church on his blog in December 2011.
Both the extremism law and its application flatly violate Russia’s international human rights commitments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the covenant, recommended that Russia’s extremism law limit its definition of extremism to threats or acts of violence. In June, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also called for reform of this law, noting that its definitions of extremism are overly broad, lack clarity, invite arbitrary application and violate international human rights standards.

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