Russia has failed to protect journalists, activists, prison inmates and others at odds with authorities from a wide range of abuses, including torture and murder, a new report by the UN Human Rights Committee says.
The findings came from an 18-member panel of independent experts who urged the Kremlin to implement a number of legal reforms which it said would improve conditions in Russia.
The proposed measures include narrowing the broad definitions of terrorism and extremism under Russian law, decriminalising defamation cases against journalists and granting appeal rights to people forced into psychiatric hospitals by the courts.
Friday's report also said Russia was responsible for reported attacks on civilians by armed groups in South Ossetia in the aftermath of the August 2008 war with Georgia, and called on Moscow to investigate those abuses.
The panel said that journalists were subjected to politically motivated trials and convictions, and urged the government to take action against "an increasing number of hate crimes and racially motivated attacks".
|Politkovskaya, who was killed in 2006, exposed human-rights abuses [AFP]
The harshest criticism, perhaps, was reserved for the Russian justice system in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus region.
The findings cited reports of torture, forced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killing in those regions committed by the military and security services, saying the perpetrators "appear to enjoy widespread impunity" from punishment for their actions.
While the report did not cite specific cases or statistics, it alluded to the killings of a number of journalists and human rights activists in Russia that remain unresolved, including the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya.
The internationally known journalist was a harsh critic of the Kremlin and exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya.
Prosecutors have said little about who might have ordered Politkovskaya's contract-style murder on October 7, 2006.
The expert panel said it also was concerned about violence against lesbian, gay and bisexual persons in Russia, including reports of police harassment.
It said it received reports of people being assaulted or even killed because they were gay or lesbian.
The panel said it was concerned at the "systematic discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation" in Russia.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in the 1990s, but many Russians are vehemently opposed to expansion of gay rights or gay-rights demonstrations.
Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, is an outspoken foe of gay rights and has always blocked attempts to hold gay pride marches in the capital, calling one a satanic gathering.
The UN panel, which assessed how five countries, including Russia, comply with an international treaty on civil and political rights, receives its information from various UN agencies and non-governmental organisations.
'Climate of fear'
On Thursday, two Western journalist groups sent a letter to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, demanding that those responsible for the death of Nataliya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist, be brought to justice.
|Estemirova's body was found riddled
with bullets in a field [EPA]
Estemirova, who wrote occasionally for Politkovskaya's newspaper Novaya Gazeta
, was kidnapped in front of her apartment building by four men in broad daylight in July.
Her body was later found riddled with bullets in a field and there have been no arrests in the case.
"Through her professional work, Estemirova had accumulated a damning body of evidence linking human rights crimes to Chechen authorities, particularly the militia of local President Ramzan Kadyrov," said the joint statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Pen American Centre, which works to defend freedom of expression and resist censorship.
The committee said it was concerned at "the alarming incidence of threats, violent assaults and murders of journalists and human rights defenders in the state party, which has created a climate of fear and a chilling effect on the media".
The killings have made many of those working to halt alleged abuses by the authorities - including kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings - extremely cautious, with some avoiding media exposure.