Published: December 19, 2013 (Issue # 1791)
President Vladimir Putin is showing increasing disdain for international law — a stance that is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his government's continuing military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. But in view of Putin's authoritarian rule at home, his perception of international law as little more than an instrument of foreign policy should come as no surprise.
When Putin's regime wants to stamp out the opposition, it typically deploys exotic and improbable provisions of the Criminal Code. For example, the young female performers in the punk band Pussy Riot, who dared to sing derogatory songs about Putin in an Orthodox church, were charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and received two years in prison.
Similarly, opposition politician and lawyer Alexei Navalny was convicted for having given poor legal advice to a provincial timber company that caused the company to lose money, a "crime" that carried a five-year prison sentence. Fortunately, the authorities suspended the sentence following mass protests in Moscow by Navalny's supporters. But the conviction remains on the books and has hampered further political activism.
Politically motivated trials started to increase 10 years ago with the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was head of Yukos, Russia's largest privately owned oil company, after he ignored warnings not to support Putin's opponents. Since then, there have been hundreds of politically motivated arrests and excessive sentences. Most recently, the authorities declared a peaceful anti-government protest by a score of young Muscovites a riot, despite a live Internet broadcast showing no unrest and no reports by witnesses of any disorder. But several protesters are now in prison or in psychiatric hospitals.
Putin's intolerance of dissent is becoming ever more sinister. He was deeply offended by the negative reaction on the streets and in the media following his controversial election in 2012 to a third presidential term, accusing the opposition and the West of trying to undermine him. Whether this response reflects personal pettiness or the uncompromising outlook of a former KGB officer, his hostility toward the U.S. and the West in general is disturbing.
At the beginning of this year, Putin demonstrated the depths to which he will sink to punish perceived opponents. After the U.S. adopted a law aimed at sanctioning Russian officials responsible for alleged human rights violations, Putin's government banned U.S. families from adopting Russian orphans, thousands of whom find happy homes in the U.S. every year. Hundreds of children, many disabled, had already met their prospective parents and were preparing for a new life when the ban was imposed. They were told that their would-be parents had changed their minds. Families from other countries whose governments hold unfavorable views of Russian policies have also been banned. Meanwhile, 75,000 Russian children fester in squalid orphanages.
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