Human rights an issue for World Cup host

Steve Larkin
World Cup host Russia is as repressive as ever, according to a leading human rights organisation

The World Cup will be staged against a backdrop of the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

Citing repressive laws, human rights abuses, censorship and anti-gay propaganda, the organisation says next month's soccer showpiece masks an ugly atmosphere in Russia.

"This is a very dire time for human rights in Russia," HRW's Russia program director Tanya Lokshina told AAP from Moscow in a telephone interview.

"Russia has been trapped in the worst human rights crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

"The intensity of this crisis is unparalleled to anything in the country's contemporary history."

Ms Lokshina urged Australians travelling to Russia for the World Cup, which starts on June 14, to scratch below the surface of the host nation.

"In recent years Russia has cracked down on ultra-nationalists and football hooligans in particular ... so for Australian guests, fingers-crossed, physical security is not going to be a problem," she said.

"But it would be great if Australian fans travelling across the world to cheer for players will also take a moment to familiarise themselves with what sort of country they are coming to."

Ms Lokshina said there had been a "staggering human rights clampdown" since Vladimir Putin re-assumed the Russian presidency in 2012.

"What we see in Russia today as far as freedom of expression is concerned is just devastating," Ms Lokshina said.

"Every year it is just getting worse."

The clampdown includes domestic laws which restrict freedom of expression and assembly - during the World Cup only public gatherings approved by Russia's federal security service are permitted.

Another domestic law, passed in February last year, decriminalised a first offence of domestic violence: if a victim wasn't hospitalised, an offence wasn't committed.

"It is mind-boggling," Ms Lokshina said.

"The law passed with support from conservatives of the proverbial traditional Russian values and claiming they want to strengthen Russian families."

Other domestic legislation victimised gay people and "basically stigmatises LGBT people as second-class citizens".

In March-May last year, police and security officials in Russia's Chechen Republic carried out a purge of gay people which HRW said including torturing men presumed to be gay.

"They have been doing similar cleansing operations against different 'undesirable' groups for over 10 years with impunity," Ms Lokshina said.

"What they did to gay people last year is very similar to what they have been doing to Muslims, critics of the government, suspected drug users and other groups they see as undesirable in Chechnya."

Chechnya's capital, Grozny, will be the base for the Egyptian team during the World Cup.

HRW and Amnesty International were among 14 non-governmental international and Russian organisations who on Thursday appealed to soccer's world governing body FIFA to intervene in the case of Oyub Titiev.

Titiev, the director of human rights group Memorial in Chechnya for the past eight years, has been jailed without trial since January on what the organisations say are fabricated drug possession charges.

Under President Putin, a raft of internet laws had also been enacted giving Russian authorities tools to restrict access, censor information the government designated as out of line with 'traditional values', and perform surveillance.

Other laws allowed the blacklisting of organisations deemed as 'undesirable' by the government.

In the past three years, Russia has blacklisted 14 'undesirable' foreign organisations - mostly American human rights groups.

"The Kremlin propaganda is very powerful," Ms Lokshina said.

"For years, Russian broadcasters have been smearing human rights groups and foreign organisations as enemies, as spies."

The effect of the domestic laws manifested in Russia's foreign policies.

"There is a lot of debate internationally about Russia's role in Syria, about Russia's role in the Ukraine, about Russia's meddling in the US elections, about Russia possibly meddling in elections in Europe," Ms Lokshina said.

"But Russia's foreign policy is very closely intertwined with its domestic policy with the staggering human rights clampdown.

"If not for the domestic clampdown, what you are seeing today in Syria and elsewhere would not have been possible."

Ms Lokshina hoped the World Cup would help raise awareness about human rights issues in Russia.

"Russia being in the spotlight, so many fans coming from all around the world, so many media publications, I hope it's all going to make people focus on the profound human rights crisis in Russia," she said.

"I really hope the World Cup is going to make the general public and the policy-makers more attentive, more attuned, to what is happening inside Russia."

And she called on FIFA to follow its own human rights policy, ratified in May last year, which committed the sport's governing body to protecting all internationally-recognised human rights.

"To what extent they are going to act is an open question," Ms Lokshina said.

"But it is something we expect them to do, especially in light of their new human rights policy. They made a commitment and they should be faithful to that commitment."