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Moscow Times
June 2, 2003
A Glum Report Card on Russia
By Matt Bivens
Special to The Moscow Times

WASHINGTON -- The horrors of Chechnya are seeping across the length and breadth of Russia, rights activists say, because men in uniform are taught to torture and murder -- or at least to wink at these crimes as above punishment -- and then are returned home to run police stations.

"The problem is that there's not just the army in Chechnya but the police. So police officers come to Chechnya, and there they share in the experiences of violence, lawlessness and absolute impunity," said Tanya Lokshina, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

"Then when their time is up they go home and take these practices with them," she said. "That's why torture by police is such an incredibly serious problem for Russia today."

This was one of many sobering assertions put forward by Russia's oldest active human rights team at a Friday morning briefing in Washington. The Moscow Helsinki Group's presentation was billed as a report card on Russia -- one delivered in the third year of President Vladimir Putin's four-year term, on a weekend when world leaders were gathering to genuflect before the rich history of Putin's hometown, St. Petersburg.

An audience of U.S. civil servants, journalists, academics and policymakers -- with bagels and styrofoam cups of coffee balanced on their knees -- listened raptly to Lokshina and her boss, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, describe the darker side of Russia. The champagne and laser light shows of St. Petersburg were 7,200 kilometers to the northeast, but seemed even farther.

There was much said of Chechnya -- where nearly 10 years of combat on a territory of 15,000 square kilometers has left thousands upon thousands dead, yet which to this day is officially not a war, but an anti-terrorist operation.

But the rights activists were glum about much else, too. Among their assertions:

Judicial reform. Though it was trumpeted as a success, it has changed little. Courts still depend on executives for funding, so a judge who crosses his governor can have trouble receiving money even for such basics as stationary and envelopes.

Courts are legendarily stingy with acquittals -- on average more than 99 percent of defendants are found guilty. Last year that average sank to 98 percent, but the Moscow Helsinki Group thinks this is an aberration caused by confusion over some details of the judicial reform legislation.

"We don't believe it's a trend, and expect [the acquittal rate] will next year fall back below 1 percent," Lokshina said.

Torture by police. Four years ago, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that torture "now appears endemic to the Russian criminal justice system." Last year, the UN Committee Against Torture asked the Russian government to take action against police officers who beat, electrocute, asphyxiate and otherwise systematically torture suspects.

But Lokshina and Alexeyeva say torture is resorted to more and more routinely -- often by police who have served in the Interior Ministry units rotated through the Chechen war zone. When victims or their families complain about torture and demand an investigation, that job falls to local prosecutors -- who work hand-in-hand with the same accused police officers. Rights activists say they would prefer independent investigations.

Ethnic hatred in Krasnodar. This southern region conducts "internal deportations" -- rounding up nonethnic Russians and bussing them out to neighboring areas.

Authorities there have advocated cleansing the region of people whose last names do not sound Russian, and routinely deny documents to ethnic minorities. In particular some 14,000 Meskhetian Turks, a large minority of mostly farmers, have no documents. The locals have refused to let them apply for citizenship -- though Meskhetian Turk minorities in other Russian regions were granted citizenship long ago -- refuse to issue them marriage certificates and sometimes even deny birth certificates. Some of the Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks have Soviet-era passports, which will expire at the end of this year.

Article 282 of the Criminal Code outlaws incitement to ethnic violence. But rights activists say the federal government is afraid to enforce it. Alexeyeva recounted challenging Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to step in: "I told him, 'It's your duty to do something about this.' He replied, 'Oh, I can't do anything because the majority of the population there agrees with this.'"

Alternative service. The Constitution allows young men to opt for an alternative to compulsory military service, yet only last summer -- after years of pressure by rights activists -- was a law finally passed to allow for it. However, rights activists soured bitterly as drafts of the law grew ever-more draconian.

The final bill signed by Putin requires those seeking alternative service to convince a Defense Ministry-run commission of their sincerity before getting permission.

Then their term of service -- 42 months, the longest in Europe -- is at the pleasure of the military, and can be served many thousands of kilometers from home, perhaps even on a military base.

"In short," Lokshina said, "we have problems everywhere. Including with protecting the most basic right of all -- the right to life itself. The enforcement structures and the special services have no respect for this fundamental right whatsoever."

As evidence, Lokshina cited the knockout gas attack in October on rebels and hostages holed up in Moscow's Dubrovka theater.

Some 127 hostages died from the gas -- most of them from suffocation that might have been avoided had competent medical help been on hand and the doctors had known what they were dealing with.

"The interior minister, the other enforcement ministers at the Cabinet level, the president -- all said the operation was well-conducted, a success," Lokshina said. Medals were handed out to the special services, but Putin "never spoke a single negative word" about the avoidable deaths by suffocation, she said.

When liberal Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov presented Putin with a study that found much of the loss of life at the theater could have been avoided, Lokshina recounted, Putin replied that all of the information in Nemtsov's report was already known to him.

"So he conceded that these deaths were avoidable," she said. "At the same time he's never voiced any kind of criticism."

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