Europe's Oldest Human Rights Org Plans to Upgrade Office in Russia

The Moscow Times-- The Council of Europe, the continent's oldest human rights organization, has announced an agreement to upgrade its Russian office, a sign that Russia takes the 47-member group seriously, a spokesman said, at a time when the Kremlin routinely rejects outside criticism of its rights record.

Turning its information office into a program office with diplomatic immunity will allow the council to assist the Russian government in implementing a list of 27 proposed projects, including an existing plan to create a court of appeals system in Russia.

"This cannot be carried out from [council headquarters in] Strasbourg. We have to have people on the ground, and we have to have people here that can organize all this work," Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland told journalists at a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday.

The agreement shows that Russia is serious about the Council of Europe — the only major European-wide organization in which Russia is a significant member — and plays an important role in it, Jagland's spokesman, Daniel Holtgen, later said by telephone.

During a two-day visit that saw meetings with senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin, and officially ended on Tuesday, Jagland also criticized the so-called "foreign agents" law and called on Russia to respect the right of the LGBT community to hold public demonstrations.

"It goes without saying that authorities have an obligation to protect LGBT people who express their views and demonstrate. This is a fundamental principle in the European Convention on Human Rights," Jagland said. He urged the State Duma not to pass a bill banning "homosexual propaganda."

But rather than condemn a controversial July law that forces non-governmental groups that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined "political activities" to register as "foreign agents," Jagland called on the government not to allow its implementation to harm civil society.

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