A well-known Russian human rights activist who was severely beaten on Tuesday night said that he was the victim of a “contract assault”.

Lev Ponomarev, head of the Moscow group “For Human Rights” gave journalists on Wednesday details of the attack which took place near his home as he was getting out of his car. “I was not robbed…I am completely sure that this was not the random beating by hooligans, but revenge. Who stands behind it all, I have no idea.”

The timing of the attack could not have been worse for Russia’s international reputation. Coming on the eve of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s first summit talks with US president Barack Obama in London on Wednesday, it follows a string of beatings and killings of opposition figures over the past few months, in which perpetrators are rarely if ever found.

Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said “I connect this attack to Mr Ponomarev’s professional work. This incident shows that the atmosphere in which Russian civil society works is unacceptable.”

Mr Ponomarev described the incident to radio Ekho Moskvy “I came home in my car, parked, started to open the front door, someone asked me for a light, I said ‘no sorry friend I don’t smoke’ and suddenly I get it in the back of the head” he said the assailants kicked him repeatedly in the head and body.

Mr Ponomarev’s wife, Vera Shabelnikova, told Interfax news agency that he had been receiving strange phone calls lately, and “there was the impression that my husband was being followed”.

He and others believe the beating follows a pattern of violence against human rights activists and opposition journalists.

Aleksander Verkhovski, of the Sova Center for Human Rights in Moscow, said the attack “was a worrying sign. It is also worrying that, in the investigation of these incidents, the culprits are never caught.”

In January Stanislav Markelov a human rights lawyer working for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Anastasia Baburova, a trainee journalist at the same newspaper, were murdered in an assassination style shooting in downtown Moscow.

Mr Ponomarev said “Its obvious I am not the first victim of such attacks, and not the last”

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