GENEVA: The rights situation in Russia has substantially worsened since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year, a top UN expert said Monday, decrying the "persistent use of torture" and sexual violence.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights situation in Russia, Mariana Katzarova, said Moscow had launched a systematic crackdown on critics since launching the war in February 2022.
"The situation of human rights in the Russian Federation has significantly deteriorated since its invasion of Ukraine," she said in her first report.
The dramatic degradation came after "the situation had already been on a steady decline over the past two decades," she said.
Katzarova was last April appointed as the first UN-backed monitor of the rights situation in Russia, or in any of the five permanent Security Council member states.
She said Russian authorities had "severely curtailed the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression", and had undermined the independence of the judiciary and the guarantees of fair trial.
Katzarova warned that administrative sanctions were "being applied arbitrarily against dissenters and force used against peaceful protesters".
"Both the harshness of recent criminal sentences and the number of people sentenced on politically motivated charges has increased," the report said.
- 'Systematic crackdown' -
Katzarova said she had been granted no access to Russia, adding that Moscow tried to "obstruct" her work.
Her findings were based on consultations with more than 60 Russian and international rights groups and individuals, in person, by phone or online, and nearly 100 written submissions.
Katzarova, who is due to present her report to the Human Rights Council later this week, said she had documented how recent legislative restrictions were being used to "muzzle civil society".
"The often-violent enforcement of these laws and regulations has resulted in a systematic crackdown on civil society organisations," she wrote.
"It has led to mass arbitrary arrests, detentions and harassment of human rights defenders, peaceful anti-war activists, journalists, cultural figures, minorities and anyone speaking out against the war."
She urged Russia to repeal problematic articles of its criminal code, and to "immediately release those detained under the provisions, quash their convictions and expunge their criminal records".
- Torture, sexual violence -
She also demanded the release of all arbitrarily detained political opposition activists, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny and dissidents Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin.
Katzarova said women, especially rights defenders, activists or journalists, had "suffered specific gender-based violence, humiliations and intimidation".
"The persistent use of torture and ill-treatment, including of sexual and gender-based violence, puts at risk the life of people in detention," she said.
Katzarova said "the environment of impunity, the unpredictability of changes to the law, in addition to their ambiguity", had forced many Russians into exile.
She called for "an effective, impartial and independent investigation into all instances of use of force, arbitrary detention and other forms of pressure".
Russia should also "ensure prompt, transparent and effective investigation... of all allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody," she said, demanding that all perpetrators be held to account.
Katzarova's mandate is due to expire next month unless the UN rights council votes to extend it -- something Moscow vehemently opposes.
The Russian foreign ministry has described efforts to extend her "illegitimate" mandate as "politicised and extremely confrontational".