MOSCOW One of Russia's most prominent rights campaigners said she was resigning from President Vladimir Putin's advisory human rights council on Friday because Kremlin interference was making its work pointless.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group which has fought for human rights in Russia since Soviet times, is the 14th person to quit the 40-member council since Putin's election to a six-year term in March.
The exodus reflects members' doubts about Putin's commitment to human rights and frustration with the inability to affect policy. Its chairman said it may soon have to disband because it is in danger of not having a quorum.
Alexeyeva, 84, said she was resigning after the Kremlin said new members must be selected in an online contest which she complained would deprive the council of the ability to choose its own representatives.
"This is the destruction of the council," she told reporters. "I am also leaving the council. I will hand in my formal resignation today. The council will now become pointless. I don't want to waste my time."
Alexeyeva started monitoring show trials at the start of the 1960s Soviet dissident movement and was a founding member of the Helsinki Group set up in 1976 to monitor Moscow's compliance with international human rights commitments.
The presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council has helped highlight allegations of rights abuses, including the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer whose death in jail in 2009 has been condemned by Washington and soured U.S.-Russian ties.
But Putin's return to the Kremlin upset some members, and he ignored the council's appeal to veto a law increasing fines for protesters who step out of line which gives him a tool to crack down on the biggest protests since he rose to power in 2000.
"The quorum is 20 people so there is a risk the council will become unable to work if we lose any more," the council's chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, told reporters.
Fedotov said the online contest to replace members would mean candidates would be chosen according to their popularity rather than their professional experience.
Putin told investors on Thursday he was open to dialogue with the opposition but said any protests must remain within the confines of the law.
Putin alarmed rights activists by toughening the rules for non-governmental organisations operating in Russia in 2006, and human right activists are becoming increasingly concerned.
"This is a sad and a bad signal for the future, a lost chance for human rights in Russia," Svetlana Gannushkina, a rights activist who was seen as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize and has also quit the council, said after Alexeyeva's announcement.
"To me this situation is a sign of fear, proof that the authorities fear society."
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Jon Hemming)