President Barack Obama has an important opportunity he should not pass up.
Fortunately, this is not a partisan issue. A group of prominent United States Senators - Democrat and Republican - have asked President Obama to speak out against Vladimir Putin's repression of freedom of expression and assembly and other human rights.
In a letter sent last week, Senators Barbara Boxer, Christopher Murphy, Jeanne Shaheen and John McCain say that while they recognize the importance Syria and other national security issues, as a world leader, President Obama must also prioritize challenging the abuses of human rights occurring throughout Russia.
Amnesty International heartily agrees. Since President Putin was inaugurated as President of the Russian Federation last year, he has orchestrated a number of changes in Russian law effectively criminalizing criticism of Putin and his security force allies. New Draconian laws are having a terrible impact:
- Jailing prominent figures: Prominent public leaders such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev are still stand behind bars, and others, such as Alexander Nevalny, seem likely to join them there
- Persecuting artists: A number of musicians whose expressive lyrics reflect poorly on Putin, like the members of the now infamous Pussy Riot, have been intimidated, arrested, or even imprisoned
- Restricting non-governmental organizations (NGOs): NGOs that participate in 'political activities' and receive funding from overseas must now register as a 'foreign agent' and comply with onerous new regulations designed to cripple their operations
- Expanding definition of treason: Russia's new Criminal Code expands the definition of 'treason' to turn virtually any government critic into a "traitor"
- Criminalizing public actions of LGBTI community: New laws outlaws efforts by lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex individuals and their supporters to fight for equal rights. On June 29, 55 LGBTI activists were arrested for attempting to hold a peaceful demonstration. Local authorities said the demonstration violated a ban on 'propaganda of homosexuality.'
- Intimidating human rights defenders: Defenders complaining about law enforcement misconduct have themselves been targeted, subject to harassment, death threats, enforced disappearances and murder. Sapiyat Magomedova, a lawyer operating in the North Caucasus, is just one of many facing intimidating just for trying to do her job.
Increasing repression in Russia must not go unchallenged. As the senators said in their letter to President Obama: "The United States must not give President Putin a free pass on repression. We hope we can count on you to prioritize advancing human rights as a central objective of U.S. relations with Russia."
It is good that President Obama, responding perhaps to pressure from rights groups like Amnesty International, backed up by members of the Congress, has announced his intention to meet with members of the Russian LBGTI community while he is in St. Petersburg. But more needs to be done to show the Russian people that the United States stands in solidarity with those who are putting their lives on the line for human rights.
Respect for human rights should not be the exception in Russia. And it certainly must not be something that is found only in the "spirit of the games" at Sochi. It should be the norm in all of Russia for all of Russia's citizens at all times.