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Originally published Monday, August 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

U.S. must stick by Russian human-rights activists while mending Russian relations

The U.S.-Russian summit in July presents an opportunity to mend eight years of frosty relations. However, guest columnist Lara Iglitzin writes that the U.S. must continue to support Russian activists and journalists doing critical work on human rights.

Special to The Times

AT the U.S.-Russian summit in July, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pledged to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship. It won't be an easy task.

Eight years of frosty relations and fragile ties won't change overnight. One complicating factor close to the heart of any improvement in U.S.-Russian relations continues to be the Russian record on human rights, a concern underscored by Obama in his meetings with leaders of the nongovernmental community in Moscow.

Obama and his key staff members understand that Putin's Russia — and it certainly still remains Vladimir Putin's highly centralized society, despite Medvedev's nominal control of the government — has led to decreasing freedoms for the Russian people and a restriction of human rights.

This has been dramatically, and tragically, demonstrated in the weeks following the high-profile Moscow summit. Three human-rights activists have been attacked — two murdered and one in critical condition — in the month of July alone.

The best known case, that of journalist and activist Natalya Estemirova, was a woman working in Chechnya for the leading human rights group, Memorial. The courageous mother of a teenager had dealt with death threats for some time but refused to back down in the face of aggression and violence. She was abducted and shot, her body dumped unceremoniously in a ditch.

The two other attacks have been less-well-documented in the Western press: Andrei Kulagin from the organization Justice, which works for the humane treatment of prisoners, was shot and killed and left in a sand quarry to the north of Moscow. Yet another Russian human-rights activist, Albert Pchelintsev, a crusader against corruption, was surrounded by gunmen last week and hit with rubber bullets. The 38-year-old is recovering in a hospital.

These attacks, coupled with two murders in broad daylight last January of a prominent human-rights lawyer and a young journalist on a central Moscow street, and the well-known case of the still unsolved murder of internationally acclaimed journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have provoked fear in the hearts of the small but feisty human-rights community in Russia.

How could it not? They receive death threats, threatening notes left at their homes and offices, and suffer government harassment. They are beaten, their offices raided, their home addresses posted on Web sites as targets for right-wing punks and fascists. And yet they continue their brave work.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, himself a lawyer and once thought to be more inclined to a liberal, Westernized society, has emphasized rhetoric over action in response to these murders. To date, he has done little to move toward the more stable, rule-of-law-based society he has spoken of and that eventually will ensure that these murderers — and the thugs that hire them — will be brought to justice. Medvedev should insist on thorough investigations that have integrity and that carry the full force of law.

Until that day, we must continue to speak out and support the small band of activists and journalists doing this critical work. Their voices should not be silenced.

Lara Iglitzin is the executive director of the Seattle-based Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which has supported human rights work in Russia for two decades.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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