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Russia's New Dissidents Defend Human Rights

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Russia's New Dissidents Defend Human Rights

Russia's New Dissidents Defend Human Rights

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And now back to a story we referred to at the beginning of the program. In Russia, recent killings of some of the Kremlin's most prominent critics have frightened human rights campaigners. New laws have been used to close down some human rights groups. We'll hear more about that in a moment from NPR's Michele Kelemen, but first in our latest series on contemporary Russia, NPR's Gregory Feifer reports on what some call Russia's new dissidents.

GREGORY FEIFER: Tanya Lokshina is a member of the new generation of human rights campaigners in Russia. She's head of the Demos Center, a human rights group. She says several years ago, she first noticed similarities between what she's doing and what dissidents under the Soviet Union had to go through.

Ms. TANYA LOKSHINA (Demos Center): I mean good God, I'm like 30 years of age and a young professional, and I'm suddenly telling my staff what they have to do if the KGB walks in. This belongs in the books. This shouldn't be happening.

FEIFER: Lokshina says the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building last October was a turning point for her. Politkovskaya's investigations into atrocities in Chechnya had made her a household name. Lokshina says her murder marked something new for Russia.

Ms. LOKSHINA: When Anna was gone, we all realized to which extent everyone else is just vulnerable because if they could do it to her, then everyone else is just completely unprotected.

FEIFER: Last year, the head of an NGO that tracked abuses in Chechnya was charged with inciting ethnic hatred in what Lokshina calls a typical political trial. The Supreme Court recently upheld the group's closure last January. These days, opposition groups are usually denied permission to stage demonstrations in Russia. When they do take place, riot police on the streets far outnumber protesters.

Last winter, the Kremlin issued a bill increasing its control over human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations. As legislators sped the measure to a yes vote, a small handful of activists tried to protest outside the imposing, Stalinist parliament building next to Red Square.

(Soundbite of political protest)

FEIFER: But not for long. Police soon bundled the demonstrators off into nearby vans. At another rally last September marking the anniversary of the Beslan school siege, police arrested leading rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. He spent three days in jail. In his cramped Moscow offices, Ponomaryov says the former KGB officers who now hold top government posts have revived Russia's police-state culture.

Mr. LEV PONOMARYOV (Human Rights Activist, Russia): (Through translator) They're not able to conduct a political dialogue. They can only work according: to the principle I'm the boss, and you're the underling. It's the way the military functions, and they've made the whole country like that.

FEIFER: The highly publicized murders of some of the Kremlin's top opponents have recently invited comparisons to KGB practices during Soviet times. Last November, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. Litvinenko was a loud critic of President Vladimir Putin's, and he blamed Putin for his poisoning from his deathbed - something the Kremlin strongly denied.

Things were much different in the 1980s and '90s, when Ponomaryov organized mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people who protested Communist Party policies and helped bring down the Soviet Union. Now, he says, rights activists have almost no public support and increasingly less money, even from the Western foundations that are among the only remaining contributors.

Mr. PONOMARYOV: (Through translator) People are afraid of funding human rights activities in Russia. Businesses are afraid, and Western organizations are leaving. On one hand, they're being squeezed by the authorities. On the other, they just don't want to get involved themselves. It's simply too difficult.

FEIFER: Ponomaryov isn't the only person to say Russia is not a free country. Other dissidents and international organizations, like Freedom House in Washington, put Russia low or at the bottom on international scales of political and human rights. But most rights activists in Russia say despite their difficulties, they're still allowed to work. Lyudmila Alexeyeva is a dissident from the Brezhnev era in the 1970s. She helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group, which she now chairs. Alexeyeva says things are not as bad as the days when most dissidents were jailed, put into psychiatric wards or forced to emigrate.

Ms. LYUDMILA ALEXEYEVA (Moscow Helsinki Group): (Through translator) Back then, if you decided to publicly criticize official ideology, it meant you first had to decide to pay for it with your freedom.

FEIFER: Now, Alexeyeva says, the authorities are more subtle. Last year, she was accused of involvement with British intelligence.

Ms. ALEXEYEVA: (Through translator) It was all done to blacken our reputation. The accusation was based on false documents, and later, the lies were never punished.

FEIFER: Alexeyeva has also been threatened by nationalist groups. One put her on the top of a list of Russia's biggest enemies. Alexeyeva says the Kremlin has encouraged extremists with its nationalistic policies, such as the mass deportations of Georgians and police raids against foreigners working in street markets, but the 80-year-old says she is not afraid of the threats against her.

Ms. ALEXEYEVA: (Through translator) If I were to be killed, no one would say oh, what a tragedy, she was cut down so young, but I also think it's better to go doing what you want.

FEIFER: Many believe that deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko were intended to warn dissidents to stop criticizing the authorities, but human rights activists say if that was the plan, it hasn't succeeded and that they intend to press on with their work. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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