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Obama must press Putin on human rights

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By Katrina Lantos Swett
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.

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