A British parliamentary fact-finding mission to Chechnya has likened the pattern of killings and torture there to 1980s Central America in a damning series of comments certain to infuriate the Kremlin.
By Andrew Osborn in Moscow
Published: 6:00AM GMT 22 Feb 2010
Lord Judd and Jo Swinson, an MP, made their blunt assessment after a two-day visit to the volatile Russian republic last week during which they met and interviewed a large number of officials and human rights activists.
Both said they were deeply concerned by what they had heard and disclosed that they had tried in vain to learn more about ongoing investigations into the 2006 murder of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the 2009 killing of human rights defender Natalia Estemirova.
"I am constantly making comparisons to Guatemala, El Salvador and Central America in the late 1980s," said Lord Judd, a long-standing expert on Chechnya. "It is this business of the calculated creation of a climate of fear and targeted assassinations.
"It is more organised and systematic and sinister than when I was here seven years ago." Witnesses who saw atrocities in Chechnya were routinely intimidated, he added, and homes belonging to relatives of rebel fighters regularly burned to the ground. It was a policy that was bound to stoke Islamist extremism, he warned.
His comments are likely to anger the Kremlin and local authorities in Chechnya who have rejected foreign criticism in the past as meddlesome interference in Russia's internal affairs. They also come at a time when Britain's relations with Russia remain mired in the bitter fallout from the 2006 murder in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.
The delegation, part of Britain's All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, ignored Foreign Office advice not to travel to Chechnya and asked for and was refused a meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic's Kremlin-backed president.
Rights activists have repeatedly accused Mr Kadyrov of complicity in torture, kidnapping and murder, allegations that Mr Kadyrov has strongly rejected.
Ms Swinson said she had been left "shocked and disgusted" by a meeting with Chechnya's own human rights ombudsman who she said had openly accused a leading human rights group of profiting from the murder of one of its activists.
"It is very clear that there is a climate of fear here and that nobody dares to criticise Ramzan Kadyrov," she said.
Lord Judd said the UK and other countries should place the issue of Chechnya at the heart of their relations with Russia in order to lobby for change.
He conceded that Grozny, the Chechen capital, had been impressively rebuilt under Mr Kadyrov's leadership after two wars but said such material changes needed to be accompanied by genuine moves to improve human rights.
"Stalin built a lot of impressive buildings too," he said.
The News: New protest against prices in Russia
Updated at: 1800 PST, Sunday, February 21, 2010
MOSCOW: More than 1,500 people took to the streets Sunday in Russia's north to protest living costs -- the first of a new series of challenges to the Kremlin in coming weeks, organizers said.
Despite freezing temperatures, protesters gathered in the port of Arkhangelsk to decry increasing prices. Some called for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to step down, said a member of an opposition movement that helped organize the protest.
"People came out into the streets in solidarity with other cities, where protest action took and is taking place, (and) many speakers say time has come to take to the streets and seek the truth from the authorities," Ilya Yashin, a member of the Solidarnost (Solidarity) opposition movement, said on Echo of Moscow radio.
Fifteen independent trade unions joined the protesters in the city's main square, said the Communist party, which organized the event.
An Arkhangelsk police officer told a foreign news agency that between 450 and 500 people turned up for the hour-long protest.
Such protests are rare in Russia. The Kremlin, which has shown little tolerance for demonstrations since the start of the economic crisis more than a year ago, was stunned when around 10,000 people turned up for a rally in Russia's western exclave of Kaliningrad in January.
The fractured opposition hopes to stage a series of protests across Russia in the coming weeks.
RIA: 4,000-strong opposition rally takes place in Russia's north – Communists
A total of 4,000 representatives of Russia's opposition parties and their supporters took out to the streets in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk on Sunday protesting against rising prices for energy, heating and communal services, the Communist Party said.
However, according to police estimates, the number of protestors, who, in particular, demanded that utility prices be lowered to 2009 levels and that the governor resign, was ten times fewer, about 450 people.
Russia was badly hit by the global economic crisis, with the government devaluing the ruble and cutting spending. It has also introduced a set of unpopular measures in 2010, including higher community services bills, increased prices for food and medicines, and higher public transport fares.
The Russian leadership has been reluctant to allow the opposition to hold full-scale anti-government protests although a several-thousand-strong protest occurred in Russia's Baltic exclave on Kaliningrad in January.
Today's protest was organized by regional offices of the Communist Party, LDPR, Yabloko, Solidarity and other parties and movements.
Police said the hour-long rally was sanctioned by authorities and took place without incidents.
The Communists earlier said the Arkhangelsk Region authorities raised prices for cold and hot water supplies by 40-56%. Local authorities said the tariffs were only raised by 18% on the average.
Ruling United Russia Party representatives attended the rally.
"The party is also against high prices for communal services and power supplies. We support these demands," regional party office chief Anatoly Kozhin said.
ARKHANGELSK, February 21 (RIA Novosti)