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At UN rights council, Blinken condemns Russia's 'systematic muzzling' of critics

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Tashkent

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of repressing domestic critics and called on U.N.- mandated investigators to keep documenting Russia's alleged abuses in the Ukraine war in a speech to the Human Rights Council on Thursday.

Blinken described Russia's civil society crackdown as a "systematic muzzling" and also urged U.N.-appointed investigators to continue documenting Russia's Ukraine abuses to provide "an impartial record of what's occurring, and a foundation for national and international efforts to hold perpetrators accountable".

His video address came ahead of an expected speech by a senior Russian official Sergei Ryabkov, who was due to appear before the same Geneva-based body for the first time since Moscow invaded Ukraine more than a year ago and since Russia was suspended from the body in April 2022.

Russia has denied abusing civilians in occupied areas or intentionally targeting them in attacks.

Dozens of Western ambassadors stood together to protest at Rybakov's presence at the United Nations in Geneva, holding Ukrainian flags.

In the same speech, Blinken also criticised the Taliban for its "draconian repression of women and girls in Afghanistan"; called out Iran for its repression of protests; and expressed grave concerns about China's treatment of its Muslim minority.

A U.N. report published last year found that the detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims by China may constitute crimes against humanity and countries are considering taking further action at the council to boost scrutiny.

Beijing denies any abuses.

The United States returned to the 47-member Human Rights Council as a voting member last year after former U.S. President Donald Trump quit the body over its alleged anti-Israel bias.

The council, where China and autocratic countries are gaining influence, is the only intergovernmental body aimed at protecting human rights worldwide and can launch international investigations.

"The U.S. being back on the council means that we're helping to shape the space and no longer conceding the space," Michele Taylor, U.S. ambassador to the council, told reporters shortly before the five-week session began.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, Editing by Rachel More and Alex Richardson)