MAFRA, Portugal, Oct 26 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin today proposed setting up a joint human rights institute with the European Union to improve dialogue on the politically sensitive issue.
EU governments and rights groups say Russia under Putin has squeezed democracy, gagged freedom of speech and used sometimes brutal methods to suppress Islamist insurgencies in its North Caucasus region.
Putin says most of the criticism is unfounded and accuses Western governments of using rights as a pretext to try to interfere in Russia's domestic affairs.
Putin told a news conference after meeting EU leaders in Portugal that the proposed institute could be based in Brussels or another European capital. He said it would deal with issues including freedom of speech and the rights of immigrants.
''Its aim is to facilitate dialogue ... I think such a dialogue will be very useful,'' Putin said.
''With the aid of grants, the EU helps develop such institutes in Russia. I think the time has come for Russia, given the growth in our financial capabilities, to make its contribution in this sphere as well.'' When pressed by Western leaders about Russian rights problems, Putin often turns the tables on them by accusing them of violating human rights themselves.
He has in the past highlighted the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the death of an ethnic Russian in clashes with police in Estonia this year.
REUTERS GT RK2240