Share This Page

Obama must press Putin on human rights

| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 8:43 p.m.

The year just passed featured grim news of serious human-rights restrictions imposed by Moscow on Russian society, including religious groups. At their next discussion, President Obama should convey these concerns to Vladimir Putin, reiterating to Russia's president the need to adhere to universal human-rights and religious-freedom standards if relations are to progress between our two countries.

When I was in Moscow in late September, I heard these worries voiced frequently. In my meetings with 30 individuals representing civil society, journalism, and human rights and religious freedom, all feared that Russia was on the cusp of a new cold war on civil society.

Since Mr. Putin's return to the presidency, Russia has passed a succession of laws curtailing freedom of expression, association and assembly. Parliament might even pass a proposed blasphemy law that clearly would violate freedom of religion or belief.

The new restrictions began in June 2012 when Putin signed a law that included a 100-fold increase — more than the average Russian's annual salary — in fines for unauthorized protests.

In July, Putin signed legislation requiring foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents” or face massive fines or two-year jail terms for their leaders. Also in July, Russia's parliament adopted laws increasing control over the Internet and re-criminalizing certain kinds of libel.

In November, Putin signed a treason law on the day he told the Presidential Human Rights Council that he might revise it.

All of this came on top of acts against pro-democratic U.S. entities, such as closing the U.S. Agency for International Development and denying certain radio frequencies to Radio Liberty.

Recently, Russia's parliament began considering the criminalizing of blasphemy. A current bill would levy fines and penalties for “offenses against religion and religious sentiment” and “offending religious feelings of citizens.”

Were the blasphemy bill to pass, Russians could bring suit against fellow citizens whom they allege have “insulted their religious sentiments.”

For instance, Russian Orthodox believers who view Apple's logo as glorifying Adam and Eve's original sin in the Bible also could prosecute Apple executives.

Clearly, a blasphemy law could push Russia's religious freedom conditions from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

Even without this proposal, Russia maintains a blatant double standard on religious freedom. While favoring the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, it targets Muslims and other groups.

Russia's course unmistakably threatens democracy but also stability, potentially pitting the Moscow patriarchate against Russia's 25 million Muslim citizens.

For the sake of both freedom and stability, it's time to remind Russia's president that, for the United States, human rights matter, and it's time to condemn last year's eclipse of those rights in Putin's Russia.

Katrina Lantos Swett is chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.