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Human Rights Developments
In 1997, the Russian government again neglected the country's many human rights problems-appalling prison conditions, rampant police brutality toward ethnic minorities and criminal suspects, and persecution and harassment of human rights activists. This lack of reform contrasted starkly with the efforts to promote economic reform by the new government, appointed by a reinvigorated President Boris Yeltsin after a long absence due to a quintuple by-pass operation. However, several government interventions favoring human rights were made in response to public pressure, contributing to a mixed record in 1997.
The government presided over a newly emerging pattern of harassment and persecution of human rights and other activists in the Russian provinces. The Russian authorities enacted a new law on religion that severely restricted religious rights and equality between religious denominations. The government did not take any measures to put an end to police brutality, both against ethnically non-Russians and criminal suspects. In Moscow, a clear increase of police violence against Caucasians, Central Asians, third-world refugees, and the homeless preceded the 850th anniversary of the city. The government took no steps to abolish the propiska system and guarantee freedom of movement in practice, despite yet another Constitutional Court decision reinforcing the constitutionally guaranteed right. Detention centers remained severely overcrowded, and ill-treatment in these centers, as well as in police custody and the army, continued with almost complete impunity. Russia failed to introduce a formal moratorium on executions but did not carry out any executions and signed Protocol Six to the European Convention on Human Rights on abolishing the death penalty, Russia had not yet ratified the European Convention on Human Rights at the time of this writing, nor complied with many other obligations related to its accession to the Council of Europe in February 1996. In a positive development, on June 14, President Yeltsin rescinded two unconstitutional presidential decrees, which allowed the police to detain people without presenting charges for up to 30 days.
One of the most disturbing developments in 1997 was a rise in the harassment of human rights activists in the Russian provinces, and the inadequate prosecutor general's response to it. Beginning in November 1996, regional authorities arrested and charged at least four human rights activists in an attempt to silence their critical voices and prevent them from serving as public defenders (See Right to Monitor). Throughout 1997, the Federal Security Service (FSB) continued to pursue outrageous espionage charges against environmentalist Alexander Nikitin for co-writing a report by the Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, on nuclear pollution from Russia's Northern Fleet nuclear submarines. After releasing Nikitin from FSB detention in St. Petersburg in December 1996, the Procurator General's office failed to drop the charges and chose instead to prolong the term ofinvestigation several times. On September 9, the FSB issued its fifth indictment, which was, like those before, based on secret legislation. During this time, the FSB had only conducted a third expert assessment of the Bellona report, which was as deeply flawed as the previous ones, meanwhile the FSB forbids Nikitin from traveling outside St. Petersburg.
On September 26, President Yeltsin signed a highly discriminatory law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion Associations, making it the first piece of restrictive legislation that Russia has introduced to replace a federal law that adequately protected the rights and freedoms of its citizens. According to the law, religious associations that local authorities deem to have existed on Russian territory for less than fifteen years would lose virtually all their rights, making their work and development in Russia all but impossible. The law contains numerous vague provisions allowing local authorities to further restrict the rights of "minority" religious groups and arbitrarily to close religious associations.
On July 22, President Yeltsin vetoed a draft of the law, arguing that it violated a range of constitutional rights and freedoms. A compromise version, proposed by the presidential administration to the State Duma on September 3, granted some property rights to religious groups, but retained the original draft's discriminating approach and draconian registration requirements. Representatives of many religions claimed they were pressured into approving the presidential proposal without having seen the final version, and several of them withdrew their support for the draft. Restrictive laws on religion already exist in about twenty-five of Russia's eighty-nine regions, including Sverdlovsk, Arkhangelsk and Buryatia. Federal authorities made no effort to challenge the constitutionality of such laws. Harassment of religious groups under the new law had already started in October 1997, within weeks after the law entered into force.
Regional governments continued to restrict freedom of movement by enforcing a registration system that is of a licensing, rather than of an informative, nature. In Moscow, a set of local ordinances allow only those with close relatives in Moscow and owners of dwellings to become permanent residents of the city and oblige the city's visitors to go through highly bureaucratic registration procedures within 24 hours of their arrival. In a positive move, on December 17, 1996, the Moscow government complied with an April 1996 Constitutional Court ruling by cancelling the prohibitive fee for a permanent residence permit. On July 2, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional a similar fee levied in Moscow Province, which the provincial government had instituted after the court's April 1996 decision. Also to its credit, the Moscow city government attempted to simplify the bureaucratic procedures for citizens of the former Soviet Union to register their temporary stays of up to six months. Discriminatory regulations continue to oblige such visitors to pay higher fees for temporary registration in Moscow than Russian citizens. Moscow city police strictly but highly selectively enforced this registration system, especially prior to the city's 850th anniversary celebrations. They stopped overwhelmingly people with dark hair and skin, people from the Caucasus, Central Asia, refugees from the third world, and the homeless for identity checks on the streets, at metro stations and in private apartments. According to Moscow police statistics, police officers carried out more than 1.4 million registration checks, including police visits to more than 1.3 million private apartments, over the first five months of 1997. The police regularly beat those stopped for passport checks, set fines arbitrarily, and appeared to pocket the money themselves.
The situation of asylum seekers was especially grave since police routinely refuse to acknowledge their UNHCR and migration service registration cards as adequate documentation for registration. Police detained and threatened to deport at least ten asylum seekers; thirty others were deported without the opportunity to apply for asylum. Detained asylum seekers have no access tothe outside world. In one egregious case, on January 6, Moscow police took Badai Galalia-an Iraqi Kurd married to a Russian woman who was not registered-from his home into custody without explanation and detained him for 111 days, during which he was not permitted to shower, see a lawyer, or phone his wife. When a despairing Galalia attempted suicide toward the end of the 111 days, police sent him to a psychiatric hospital (without informing his wife) where he stayed until June 16.
As in 1996, Russia not only failed to grant proper protection and asylum to dissidents and opposition politicians from countries of the former Soviet Union, its law enforcement agencies harassed several of them and extradited one. On February 21, Albert Musin, a formerly Moscow-based human rights activist, was stopped by the police during a routine identity check and detained when a computer check indicated he was wanted by the Uzbek authorities. Following an international protest campaign the Russian government released him and Uzbekistan dropped the extradition request. On June 25, four armed police officers entered the building of the Moscow Helsinki Group (a leading Russian human rights organization) and took Abdulfattakh Mannapov, another Uzbek dissident who had just obtained Russian citizenship, to the police station because of his alleged lack of registration. Immediate action by the Moscow Helsinki Group and Express Khronika (a human rights newspaper) secured his release. On August 18, Ayaz Akhmedov, an Azerbaijani dissident poet, was visited by unknown men and a woman at his home who eventually left as Akhmedov refused to open the door. Several days later, Akhmedov was beaten up in Moscow by two unknown men. Unable to turn to the police for protection, Akhmedov left Russia and was granted political asylum in Norway.
Police arrested Akhmadjon Saidov, former deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan, on February 7 at the request of the Tajik government. The office of the procurator general extradited him to Tajikistan on June 27, ignoring the possible political motives behind the case. Extradition requests were reviewed on the basis of the Minsk Convention of 1993, which does not allow for access to a lawyer nor to judicial review of the legality of detention. The procurator general's office also selectively refused to subject the charges of the requesting side to critical review to exclude political motivations.
Comprehensive amendments to the 1993 Law on Refugees entered into force on July 3, 1997. The amendments improved the 1993 law by clarifying some procedural matters and introducing terminology consistent with the 1951 Convention, but otherwise left the refugee determination procedure intact. Importantly, the law allows for asylum seekers to register with police on the basis of migration service identification cards.
Despite these improvements, the situation of refugees remained highly problematic. The Federal Migration Service (FMS) had not issued instructions to its local branches on how to implement the new law, and consequently migration services throughout Russia were unable to process new asylum claims. In 1997, the FMS began reviewing the merits of a number of asylum claims filed in 1993 and 1994. Judicial review of denials continued to be extremely slow. Most refugees arriving at Moscow's international airport were sent back to their country of origin without being given a chance to file an asylum claim.
A new presidential decree "On the manner of granting political asylum in the Russian Federation," which replaced a 1995 decree, did nothing to improve the plight of ordinary asylum seekers, nor did it correct any of its predecessor's problematic provisions; indeed to the contrary, it introduced some additional restrictions on the right to asylum. Most disturbingly, it grants local officials great discretion over whether an asylum claim is reviewed on merit, fails to provide for anappeal procedure, and categorically rules out asylum claims from countries Russia deems "democratic."
Human rights violations continued on a massive scale in the criminal justice and penitentiary system, despite structural reforms required by the Council of Europe. The government did not strip the FSB of its right to run detention centers or reform the procurator's office, as required by the Council. The State Duma adopted a draft criminal procedure code on June 6, which failed to establish a criminal law system based on the equality of parties, in violation of article 123(3) of the Russian constitution, and which contained many of the flaws of the 1960 criminal procedure code. In a positive move, President Yeltsin signed a decree ordering the transferal of the penitentiary system from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice.
Law enforcement agencies continued the large scale use of torture during criminal investigation. Torture occurred mostly in the first hours or days of detention, when detainees were completely isolated from the outside world by police refusal to grant suspects access to a lawyer of their own choice or to allow them to contact their relatives. In numerous cases, testimony received from tortured suspects was used in court and accepted as evidence by judges while procurators failed to investigate or open criminal proceedings against the police officers involved. In a symptomatic case, on November 21, 1996, police officers in Yekaterinburg tortured fifteen-year-old Oleg Fetisov when he refused to confess to a crime he claims he did not commit. Police beat and kicked Fetisov, forced a gas mask on his head and then cut the oxygen flow until he lost consciousness. Fetisov promised to sign the confession but quickly jumped from the fourth floor window, and as a result suffered a concussion and broken ribs. Although criminal proceedings were instituted against the police officers, they were dropped in May on unclear grounds. As of this writing, Fetisov's trial was scheduled to begin in November.
The rescinding of two notorious presidential decrees marked significant improvements. On Immediate Measures for the Protection of the Population Against Banditry and Other Manifestations of Organized Crime" had allowed police to detain people suspected of ties with organized crime for up to thirty days without presenting charges. Various police officers had used this decree widely and arbitrarily, especially in connection with the war in Chechnya. Presidential Decree 1025, of 1996, On Urgent Measures on Strengthening Law and Order and Intensifying the Fight Against Crime in Moscow and Moscow Region, which singled out "vagrants and beggars" and allowed police to hold these persons in "social rehabilitation centers" for up to thirty days and to remove the homeless forcibly from Moscow, was also rescinded. The Moscow city implementing decree remained in force.
Severe overcrowding made conditions in pre-trial detention facilities torturous and fatal. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Interior to the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, on July 1 some 275,567 people were being held in detention centers intended for a maximum of 182,358 detainees. Sanitary conditions were extremely poor, as was medical care. Increasing numbers of detainees and prison inmates suffered from tuberculosis, which caused the death of seventy-four per 100,000 prisoners in 1994, and 178 in 1995. (The total prison population in Russia as of July 1 was 1,017,848). On July 1, according to official figures, 67,151 convicted prisoners were ill with the disease. Overall, 676 of every 100,000 prisoners died in 1994 and 720 in 1995.
Neither the government nor the procurator general took any steps to discourage the almost automatic use of custody as a measure of restraint, nor to promote the use of bail. As a result, many procurators continued to issue sanctions to arrest suspects without properly reviewing the necessity of custody. The draft criminal procedure code would continue the widespread application of custody,even though it would limit its use to some extent.
Although in 1997 Russia observed a de facto moratorium on executions and signed Protocol Six to the European Convention on Human Rights on April 17, courts continued to sentence people to death. According to official figures, as of February some 900 people remained on death row, 680 of whom were still in the appeal process.
For the second year in a row a draft law on domestic violence failed to reach the Duma for debate. A draft circulated this year would have limited the right to many such benefits as places in government-run shelters only to those women who were financially dependent on their partners. The draft also failed to require the police and procuracy to gather statistics on domestic violence. Reported rapes fell thirteen percent in 1996-the result, no doubt, not of improved crime prevention but of survivors' increased reluctance to report rapes. Rape crisis counselors estimate that fewer than five percent of rape survivors report the crime.
In 1997, assassinations and frequent kidnappings shattered hopes of post-war stability in the Chechen Republic. Unidentified gunmen murdered a group of six delegates of the International Committee for the Red Cross on December 17, 1996; several elderly Russians suffered the same fate later that month. Throughout 1997, well over fifteen journalists and many other aid workers and other people were taken hostage by unknown groups motivated by ransom. Among them were Yelena Masyuk and two colleagues working for Russia's independent television network (NTV), who were taken hostage on May 10. They were released on August 18, apparently only after NTV paid a large sum to the kidnappers. Numerous others remained hostages.
In an apparent attempt to end rampant crime, the Chechen government publicly executed convicted prisoners on at least two occasions in 1997. In April, a man from the settlement of Bachi-Yurt was executed, and on September 3 a man and a woman who had been convicted for premeditated murder were executed by firing squad on a central square in Grozny, in the presence of some 2,000 people. The execution was televised. Two more executions, which had been planned for the following week, were postponed after international protests. Under the Chechen criminal code at least eight crimes carried capital punishment. Some punishments involve the infliction of terrible pain, such as decapitation and stoning. The criminal code also provided for caning for at least eleven crimes.
The Right to Monitor
In late 1996 and 1997, local authorities in the Russian provinces arrested at least four human rights activists and brought charges against them involving such things as libel, contempt of court, making death or other threats, and having sexual intercourse with a minor. All activists had provided free legal advice to people in their regions and acted as public defenders at court hearings. They were presumably arrested to silence their often harsh criticism of the work of local procurator's offices, judges, and the police. Even though the procurator general's office apparently played a role in the release of some of the human rights activists-albeit under concerted pressure from Russian and international human rights groups-it did nothing to end the upsurge in repression of human rights activism.
Yury Shadrin from Omsk was arrested on November 29, 1996, following a decision by the provincial procurator of Omsk to combine three old and unrelated charges, involving death threats, a car accident, and contempt of court, into one case. Shadrin was released on December 31 following a public outcry but the charges have not been dropped. Magadan police arrested Rafael Usmanovon March 25, 1997, while on his way to a court hearing on a case for which he had been serving as public defender, and charged him with libel, presumably in relation to his severely critical article about the Russian Constitutional Court. Usmanov was released on April 10, and the charges were dropped. Criminal proceedings against Yury Padalko from the town of Irkutsk on presumably trumped-up charges of libel, hooliganism, and other offenses instituted in 1992 continued to be pursued. Murmansk police arrested Mr. Pazyura on May 26, 1997, and charged him with libel, contempt of court, and death or other threats. Shortly before, Pazyura had sharply criticized the chair of the Murmansk provincial court in a telephone conversation with her. At a September 9 court hearing, Pazyura made an emotional verbal attack on the judge, who subsequently appointed yet another assessment of his mental health. Vasily Chaykin from Krasnodar was arrested on April 17 1997, and charged with having had sexual intercourse with a minor. However, there was sound reason to believe that these charges had been fabricated as a form of revenge for his public criticism. At this time, Chaykin remained in detention.
The Role of the
In November 1996, the U.N. Committee against Torture considered Russia's second periodic report. The committee expressed concern at widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment of suspects, persons in custody, and in the army. It also deplored the absence of effective machinery for prompt examination of complaints about ill-treatment and the serious overcrowding in Russian prisons. The committee further noted with concern the extradition of individuals who are at risk of torture and ill-treatment in their home countries. The committee's recommendations included introducing torture as a criminal offense and establishing an effective institution to monitor conditions of criminal investigation and custody. It also urged the Russian authorities to improve conditions in prisons radically and to introduce a training program for law enforcement agencies.
The European Union (E.U.), Russia's largest trading partner, engaged Russia on several high-profile human rights issues. E.U. ambassadors to Russia expressed concern about the draft Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations after it had been adopted by the Russian parliament. However, the E.U. inexplicably failed to protest the equally bad proposal issued by the presidential administration after President Yeltsin vetoed the original bill.
European Commissioner Hans van den Broek wrote to Alexander Nikitin and his attorney on January 31, stating that the European Union will follow "with particular interest" further developments in the criminal case against him and expressed willingness to raise his case with the Russian authorities in case such a necessity would arise.
On April 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning torture and ill-treatment practiced by Russian law enforcement agencies, violence and other arbitrary treatment against ethnic minorities, and inhuman conditions in prisons. In June, the parliament expressed concern about the use of registration permits in Moscow to deny street children access to municipal services and about police harassment of a nongovernmental organization working with these children.
Council of Europe
The Council of Europe's overall assessment of Russia's compliance with council obligations and membership conditions remain in a confidential report by Rudolf Bindig, a Council of Europe Rapporteur. As part of the Order 508 procedure, under which the Council monitors certain new member states, Mr. Bindig visited Russia in late 1996 and wrote a report on its compliance. At this time, the Council of Europe was waiting for the Russian government's comments on the report.
In February, Council of Europe rapporteur on the Nikitin case Erik Jurgens visited in St. Petersburg to express concern about the use of secret legislation in the case, as well as other issues. In a report to the Legal Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of March 11, Jurgens wrote he was "shocked" by the gross violations of the presumption of innocence in the Nikitin case.
The Parliamentary Assembly Legal Committee discussed the draft law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations at its sessions in June and September and expressed concern about the law to the Russian delegation.
On September 5, Leni Fischer, president of the Parliamentary Assembly, condemned a public execution, that was carried out in Chechnya two days earlier.
Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe
In February, after the OSCE had observed and declared free and fair the January presidential elections in Chechnya, the outgoing government ordered the OSCE's representative, Tim Guldimann, to leave the country, as Guldimann had stated that Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation. He was later permitted to return.
On September 10, the head of the OSCE Assistance Group in Grozny, Mr. Thorning Petersen, expressed his deep concern to President Maskhadov about the use of public executions by the Chechen authorities. The executions that had been planned for that day were later postponed.
The Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress vigorously opposed the new religion law. At the G8 meeting in Denver in June, President Clinton expressed concern to President Yeltsin while the draft was under consideration by the State Duma. In July, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment that would cut about US$ 200 million in aid to Russia in 1998 if Yeltsin signed the religion law. In September, after the Duma adopted the revised law, Vice President Gore publicly expressed doubts about the law after a meeting with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin.
On June 17, President Clinton wrote to Alexander Nikitin and his fellow Goldman Environmental Prize Winners, stating the U.S. government's deep concern about the serious procedural irregularities in the Nikitin case and promising to monitor further developments in the case.
Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Moscow: Open Season, Closed City, 9/97
First Anniversary of Its Accession to The Council of Europe, 2/97
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