Russia OKs reform of European human rights court

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian lawmakers on Friday ended years of resistance and ratified an international agreement intended to strengthen and speed up the work of the European Court of Human Rights.

The decision marked a change in the position of the Kremlin-controlled State Duma, which had rejected the document in 2006, fearing it could be used by the West to punish Russia.

The 392-56 vote follows President Dmitry Medvedev’s call on parliament to review the issue and appears to reflect the Kremlin’s desire to improve chilly ties with the Council of Europe, the continent’s top rights body.

The Strasbourg-based court has struggled to deal with a backlog of cases, and Protocol 14 to the European rights convention was seen as essential for streamlining the court’s proceedings. The document needed to be approved by all members of the 47-nation Council of Europe to come into force, and Russia had been the only holdout.

Russia’s reluctance reflected its irritation over court rulings that found the country at fault in scores of cases related to abductions and killings in Chechnya and rights abuses in other Russian regions.

Human Rights Watch said in September that Russia had ignored more than 100 rulings that held Russian authorities responsible for killings, abductions and torture.

Other countries have appealed European Court of Human Rights decisions they disagreed with, as the British government did this week when the court ruled that a British law allowing police to stop and search people without having first to prove they were acting suspiciously violates individual freedoms.

Still, Thorbjorn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, hailed the Duma’s ratification of the international agreement, saying that “Russia is sending a strong signal of its commitment to Europe.”

The protocol gives the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers the power to bring a member state before the court for noncompliance with a previous judgment against that state. Some pro-Kremlin lawmakers feared this could raise the heat on Russia.

But Medvedev said at a meeting with officials last month that consultations with the court and the Council of Europe helped assuage some of the Russian concerns about the new court rules. He said that Russia is interested in making the court more efficient.

Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov told lawmakers on Friday that Moscow had received assurances that its representative in the court will be invited to attend hearings of appeals filed by Russians. He also said that the Council of Europe’s decision-making body will consult with Russia on how to enforce the court’s rulings.

Denisov argued that the document’s ratification is key for improving Russia’s ties with European nations, some of which have accused Russia of hampering the court’s work by failing to endorse its reform.

The Communists were the only faction in the Duma, parliament’s elected lower house, to vote against the document Friday. Communist lawmaker Sergei Reshulsky said the new court operation rules would put more pressure on Russia, despite officials assurances.

The measure still needs to be approved by the upper house and signed by Medvedev, but both steps are expected to occur soon.

The Duma’s ratification precedes hearings in the European court on a lawsuit filed by former shareholders of the Yukos oil company, who are seeking $100 billion in damages for what they call a forced bankruptcy and takeover by the state.

Some media reports have suggested that the Kremlin might have backed the protocol’s ratification in the hope of softening the court’s attitude to Russia ahead of the crucial Yukos proceedings. But Duma member Dmitry Vyatkin denied that Friday’s vote had anything to do with the Yukos case.

While Russia has ignored most of the European court’s rulings, Russia’s Supreme Court surprisingly agreed last month with its judgment that a 2003 decision to arrest Platon Lebedev, a business partner of former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was illegal.

Officials said the ruling wouldn’t lead to Lebedev’s release, but it did signal a new willingness by Moscow to come into line with the decisions of the European court. That ruling coincided with a visit to Moscow by Jagland, the Council of Europe chief, who discussed human rights issues with Medvedev.