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Fear Supports Russian Culture of Impunity


Russia's "Memorial" human rights organization has suspended its activities in Chechnya following last week's murder of its local representative, journalist Natalya Estemirova. Human rights activists have blamed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev for maintaining a culture of permissiveness and impunity that led to Estemirova's death.

Memorial's Chechen branch has issued a statement saying the health and safety of its members are under a serious threat. The statement adds that Chechen authorities exhibit undisguised hostility toward any independent civic initiative and also complete lack of understanding of civil society, insofar as senior government officials equate human rights activists with terrorists.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last week sent a telegram to Memorial's Chechen office saying he has been deeply shaken by the murder of Natalya Estemirova. He pledged a thorough investigation and promised the perpetrators will be punished.

But Russian Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin says promises are almost never fulfilled in his country when the murder victims are human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.

Lukin says investigations always begin with a promise that everything will be quickly resolved and that it is a matter of honor. Then, the case drags on for about ten years. During that time, he says, the public is informed four or five times that the case in almost resolved and everything will be fine after one final effort. But after ten years, he adds, the case recedes in memory and is superseded by others.

Lukin spoke at a news conference in Moscow Thursday that was packed with scores of journalists from around the world. The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, asked representatives of Russian media to raise their hands.

Alexeyeva indignantly noted Russian journalists were in a clear minority. She said everyone understands why, and that it is not news for the human rights community.

The veteran activist said she received many calls from international media asking her to comment on the Estemirova murder, but not a single inquiry from a Russian journalist. She indicated Russian media shows little interest in the murder of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists.

The head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, acknowledged receiving a few calls about his murdered colleague, but noted the Estemirova case is just the tip of an iceberg of crimes perpetrated by Russian officials. He said fear keeps ordinary Russians from protesting to authorities when their relatives disappear.

According to Orlov, people begin to protest after a long time and only when hope fades. He said that later, if a tortured kidnap victim is released by the grace of God -- that is it -- everyone forgets, and even the victim asks others not to complain, and relatives request return of their protest letters.

Activists say the number of kidnappings in Chechnya has risen dramatically, from 35 in 2007 to 42 in 2008, and more in the first six months of this year than the combined total of the two previous years.

Russian actor Alexander Filippenko joined the Memorial news conference to read an excerpt from a 1974 essay by Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn entitled "Live not by Lies."

Solzhenitsyn, as read by the actor, said Russians have been so hopelessly dehumanized that for today's modest ration of food they are willing to abandon all their principles, their souls, and all the efforts of their predecessors and all opportunities for descendants so long as no one disturbs their fragile existence. The author also asked if the time has not come for honest people to reject the violence concealed by lies and the lies that exist only through violence.

Human Rights Commissioner Lukin spoke of enclaves of permissiveness in the Caucasus and said they could spread to all of Russia if left unchecked. He warned that politicians who tolerate such enclaves for opportunistic reasons maintain extremely dangerous positions. Lukin claimed there are too many people in Russia who think all controversial matters that have a negative personal impact should be resolved by murder.

Moreover, said Lukin, the state of Russian society is such that it is inclined toward that method of problem solving. He said it is a big and serious problem and also a separate issue.

Commissioner Lukin added that there is a deeply rooted tendency in Russia to confuse the security of the state with the security of government officials. He noted, however, that security in a lawful country should mean the security of the people, above all journalists, lawyers and human rights activists who help protect others.

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