Swett: Vladimir Putin puts boot to many Christians, Boston Herald

Katrina Lantos Swett Friday, January 01, 2016

With the passing of Christmas and on this the start of the New Year, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to convince many Americans and other Westerners that he is a staunch defender of Christians against their oppressors, most recently ISIS in Syria.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. From Iraq and Syria to Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia itself, the Kremlin’s behavior belies such rhetoric. For the sake of Christians and others persecuted for their faith, it is time to rid ourselves of this myth.

At best, Putin’s regime has been an unreliable ally of Christians. At worst, it has persecuted Christians, at home and abroad, especially those who do not belong to the country’s dominant religious and cultural — and some say political — institution, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate.

This is hardly surprising, given that the former KGB official once deemed the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of religion’s most lethal enemies, “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Putin has cynically used concern about Christians to revive as much of the old Soviet empire as possible and to restore Russia’s Soviet-era influence over the Middle East.

In Iraq, Putin has done little about the slaughter and enslavement of Christians by ISIS and like-minded radical Islamist terrorist groups.

In Syria, he has spoken about saving Christians from ISIS, but his actions contradict his words. His air force has launched bombing raids — not primarily against ISIS, but against civilians and armed opposition groups who pose the biggest threat to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s reign. Clearly, Putin puts Assad’s regime above the well-being of Christians.

Since seizing control of Crimea last year, Russia has put increasing pressure on churches and leaders not affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. In June 2014, the leader of the Salvation Army in Crimea left the peninsula after reporting repeated harassment by security agents. By late 2014, clergy without Russian citizenship, particularly Greek and Roman Catholics and those belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate, were forced to leave Crimea. The home of the Kiev Patriarchate’s bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, Klyment Kushch, was burned down. Russia also has applied its notorious registration and anti-extremist laws to Crimeans, including Orthodox adherents who are not Moscow Patriarchate members.

Pro-Russian forces have visited similar abuses on communities in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine after Russian-backed paramilitary groups seized territory.

Even within Russia itself, Christians are hardly safe from Putin’s repression. From Baptists to Charismatics to Adventists, Russian Protestants may be denied permits to build churches, as well as visas for foreign missionaries According to some estimates, for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least two unregistered ones, as Russian authorities often discriminate against such congregations through the religious registration law. Some of these church members, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, are deemed “extremist” under Russia’s overly broad anti-extremism law, some for simply opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The conclusion could not be more obvious: As evidenced by his sins of commission and omission, Vladimir Putin is no friend of Christians. It is time for Christians and all people of goodwill to pay heed.

Katrina Lantos Swett, a New Hampshire resident, is president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

Original op-ed on Boston Herald


Huffington Post- Interpol and Pichugin : Unwilling Pawns in Putin's Yukos Game by Katrina Lantos Swett

In 2014, the Russian government surprised the world by releasing two high-profile prisoners of conscience and former Yukos executives, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, each of whom who had been imprisoned on what were widely recognized to be false criminal charges. Though this was in part an act of goodwill on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, it also gave hope that Russia was signaling a turn towards an improved respect for the rule of law. However, since the start of those Olympics, it has been clear that such hopes were ill-founded. One only need to look to the current treatment of the first Yukos employee arrested, Alexei Pichugin, and that of the scores of Yukos officials who managed to flee Russia, to see that Mr. Putin's tactics remain an example of the legal nihilism that characterize Russian justice and are part of a greater pattern of feigned rapprochement.

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Lantos Foundation Statement - Mikhail Khodorkovsky Is a Free Man

Today Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a free man. He is free not only in the narrow sense of having been freed from illegitimate imprisonment. He possesses the deeper freedom that comes from having met the test of conscience and courage. This deeper freedom comes when someone faces unjust persecution at the hands of a corrupt judiciary and authoritarian state and nonetheless maintains their integrity and principles. Like other prisoners of conscience before him -  men like Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela - Mikhail has shown a deep determination to fight for a more just and democratic world. Furthermore, he has been willing to pay a high personal price for his ideals. Mr. Khodorkovsky’s demonstration of character and determination has won the respect of his fellow Russians and millions of others around the world.

Statement on Mikhail Khodorkovsky Pardon

We are thrilled by the news this morning that Mikhail Khodorkovsky could shortly be pardoned and freed after 10 years of unjust incarceration. The Lantos Foundation has been actively protesting his political prosecution, rigged conviction, and continued incarceration throughout this shameful miscarriage of justice. We also welcome the fast track progress of an amnesty bill in the Russian Duma that could lead to the release of the young women of Pussy Riot and the lifting of charges against the Green Peace activists. These are all positive steps and we hope they are the harbinger of more reforms to come.

The announcement this morning indicated that Mr. Khodorkovsky would be released soon. We are cautiously optimistic, but we cannot celebrate this progress, until the deeds match the words. We hope that before the Holidays Mikhail is safely reunited with his loving family and amnesty is granted to the many other political prisoners in Russia.

As the world’s eyes turn to Russia for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, we hope that these steps towards reform and compassion will prove to be more than short-lived public relations gestures. Our hope for the people of Russia is that these actions represent a genuine desire to return to greater democracy and to build a society where the rule of law is respected, robust civil society is celebrated, and people are free to express themselves.

In this holy season, the freeing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky gives many of us cause to celebrate and to hope for a coming year with greater peace and goodwill towards all people.

Lantos Foundation Statement - Posthumous Conviction of Sergei Magnitsky

Following the announcement that a Moscow Court posthumously convicted Sergei Magnitsky yesterday, Lantos Foundation President Katrina Lantos Swett issued the following statement: 

“The absurd posthumous conviction of Sergei Magnitsky by a thoroughly corrupt Russian judicial system represents a new low in the annals of Putin’s misrule of Russia. Sergei Magnitsky is hailed around the world as a brave and idealistic lawyer who exposed massive tax fraud on the part of corrupt Russian officials. He paid for this disclosure with his life and the pathetic attempt by these guilty officials to implicate Magnitsky in their crimes would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Thankfully, Sergei Magnitsky’s former client Bill Browder, who was also falsely convicted in absentia, remains free and has dedicated himself to exposing the crimes of Putin and his henchmen. History will not be kind to Putin and his corrupt cronies who have tried to besmirch the name of a fallen hero. The good news is they have already failed and Sergei Magnitsky’s proud legacy of integrity and idealism will continue to shine brighter with each passing year.”

A Message of Solidarity to Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Today is the 50th birthday of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and tragically, once again, he will spend this day in a Russian prison. It has been nearly 10 years since Mr. Khodorkovsky was unjustly imprisoned for the “crime” of daring to challenge the corruption and authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. During the past decade, the dangerous and criminal nature of Putin’s regime has been unmasked for the entire world to see. From the murder of the crusading lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while in official custody, to the stolen Duma elections of 2011, to the harassment and persecution of civil society organizations dedicated to human rights and democracy, to the wholesale corruption of the legal system, it is clear that democracy and basic human rights are scarce commodities in Putin’s Russia. 

Millions of people now recognize Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a man who had the foresight to see what was happening to his country and the courage to try and stop it. It is vital that people of goodwill stand in solidarity with Mikhail on this important day. He has spent 10 long years languishing in prison but is due to be released in October of 2014. We call upon governments and citizens around the world to demand that the Russian government honor his release date and set this brave man free. Through letters, calls, social media, and public demonstrations we must make it clear to Putin that the world is watching. 

Lantos Foundation president Katrina Lantos Swett said, "Mikhail Khodorkovsky was willing to stand up for Russian democracy and freedom and has paid a very heavy price for his courage. Now it is time for those who support these values to stand up for him."

Lantos Foundation Urges Interpol to Reject Russia's Latest Political Witch-Hunt

CONCORD, NH – The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice has sent a letter petitioning Interpol to reject Russia’s request to issue an All-Points Bulletin to locate Mr. William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management. The Russian Government has been pursuing Mr. Browder on tax evasion charges, but it is widely believed that his pursuit is related to his work calling for justice for his slain former employee Sergei Magnitsky, who is currently the subject of an outrageous posthumous trial in Russia. Interpol’s Commission for the Control of Files will consider the request at its next scheduled meeting beginning on May 23rd.

Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation, stated:

“We strongly urge Interpol not to become embroiled in Russia’s latest attempt to make a mockery of international justice. Bill Browder deserves praise, not condemnation, for the work he has done with the Sergei Magnitsky Act here in the US and other attempts to gain justice for his slain friend. Interpol must not play into Putin’s hands by acquiescing to an APB that would make them accessories to an outrageous abuse of justice and put a respected human rights champion at risk of his life should he fall into the corrupt and violent hands of Russia’s Interior Ministry.”

Russia Accelerates Its Retreat from Democracy

The past several years have witnessed a disturbing and accelerating retreat from democracy and human rights on the part of the Putin government. This trend was on clear display yesterday in the raid of one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations - Memorial. 

Last July, in apparent retaliation for widespread protests by democracy and human rights activists, the Russian government introduced legislation requiring NGOs that receive any support from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. In the Russian context this is tantamount to requiring them to self-identify as spies and traitors. 

Memorial, an organization dedicated to documenting the human rights abuses of Russia’s communist past and to advocating for democracy and rule of law, is widely respected both in Russia and abroad. 

According to Lantos Foundation President, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, targeting such a high profile organization is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation throughout the Russian human rights NGO community. 

“Putin has reverted to type as an unreformed KGB operative, and is attempting to stifle and intimidate reformers in Russia. Since the recent corrupt elections, we have seen a raft of anti-democratic moves by the Putin regime of which this is just the latest example.” 

The Lantos Foundation has been in the forefront of advocating for democracy and rule of law in Russia and has condemned the unjust trial and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as well as the suspicious death of the whistle blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, while in Russian government custody. 

Lantos Swett called on the U.S. State Department to condemn the raid on Memorial’s offices; “The American government must not sideline our human rights concerns with Russia. As important as the various economic and security issues on the Russian/American agenda are, we cannot afford to ignore Russia’s retreat from democracy, and we owe it to the people of Russia to let them know that we stand with them in their struggle to protect their freedoms.”