Source AP ©

Amnesty International urges Austrian leaders to confront Putin

Austria was urged by Amnesty International to openly confront Russian President Vladimir Putin on the field of human rights and freedom of speech violations during his upcoming visit to the country.

"Every state visit where human rights are not a central, hard, clear theme - both in work sessions and publicly addressed at press conferences - is not only a missed opportunity, it will contribute to more violations of human rights," Heinz Patzelt, secretary-general of the Austrian branch of Amnesty International told reporters.

Patzelt, who said his group had sent a letter to Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer earlier this month, spoke in a tent outside Vienna's historic Hofburg Palace roughly a week before Putin was due to arrive for a brief state visit. Details of his trip have not been released.

Next to the tent - dubbed the Freedom of Speech Cafe - members of the group sat on the ground with their mouths taped, while people in grey suits - actors posing as the secret police - eyed them closely. They were watched over by a figure wearing a Putin mask that sat on a throne in front of a picture of the Kremlin.

Patzelt said censorship contributed to the functioning of Putin's "system." He noted that when Russians watched TV, read the newspaper or listened to the radio, they were confronted with a "black and white world," with good politicians on one side and violent murderers and terrorists - migrants or people from the Caucasus - on the other.

"Freedom of expression can't be eaten, one can't drink it, one can't wear it ... but it is the central litmus test for what's really going on in a country," he said.

While Patzelt placed particular emphasis on freedom of expression, he also highlighted Russian human rights violations in Chechnya, racism against minorities and domestic abuse of women.

"Violence against women is still a proven instrument of assertion used by chauvinists, alcoholics and other men, and the Russian system watches and looks away," Patzelt said.

Speaking to the Associated Press after the news conference, Patzelt said Putin was the second most powerful man in the world after U.S. President George W. Bush and noted that he had the power to change things for the better - if he wanted to.

During a speech in Vienna late last month, the prominent Russian opposition figure and Kremlin critic, Garry Kasparov, urged Western leaders to stand up to Putin and warned that inaction would make them complicit with "crimes to come."

"Time is now for the West to tell Putin that they will not watch quietly anymore," said Kasparov, a former chess champion.

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