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Group Says Human Rights Abuses Still a Serious Problem in Russia - 2002-07-11

A Moscow-based rights group says human rights abuse remains a serious problem in Russia. The Moscow Helsinki Group leveled the charges this week in a long report charging violations of human rights in all areas of Russian life.

The 470-page annual report details human rights violations in all of Russia's 89 regions.

Veteran rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, an official of the Moscow Helsinki Group, says the basic human rights situation in Russia is bleak in all areas, including political, civil and economic rights.

But Ms. Alexeyeva says the principal problem the rights watchdog group finds is that there is still no firm rule of law in Russia. Until that changes, she said, abuses of all kinds will remain commonplace.

"If judges would receive problems under the law (the constitution) the general situation of human rights in our country would be much better. But our judicial system, our courts at this time, do not work in connection with (the) constitution and Russian legislation, but very often depend on decisions of executive authorities," she said.

The report details numerous allegations of rights abuses by Russian authorities and characterizes the situation in the breakaway republic of Chechnya as disastrous. It also accuses the Russian government of trying to forcibly return to Chechnya some 150,000 Chechen refugees who are currently living in neighboring Ingushetia.

Russian troops left Chechnya in 1996, after failing to rout the Chechens in a two-year campaign. But they returned in 1999, following a series of apartment house bombings in Russia and reported incursions into Dagestan both of which Moscow blamed on terrorist Chechen rebels.

The Helsinki Group dismisses claims by Russian officials that they are fighting terrorists in Chechnya, maintaining that the opponents are in fact separatists.

Ms. Alexeyeva says the Helsinki Group is also critical of Western powers for not saying more about Chechnya. She says the West was once highly critical of Russia over its rights record in Chechnya, but ever since the attacks of September 11 and President Putin's support for the campaign against terrorism, the West has been ignoring Chechnya.

"Of course, we welcome our president's decision to support the (global) anti-terror campaign and to be integrated into cooperation with democratic countries fighting terrorism together," she said. "But unfortunately, as a result of this decision, after September 11 we see that authorities of democratic countries are not paying attention to violations of human rights in Russia, in general, and in Chechnya maybe it is their common decision that if we are friends they don't want to criticize human rights abuses in our country."

Ms. Alexeyeva said the perceived silence is causing a great deal of pain to human rights activists and monitors across Russia. She said they have long counted on Western support to keep up the fight during the dark days of the past.

The Helsinki Group also cited an alarming rise in racist and anti-Semitic violence in Russia. It says that in recent months, there have been several high-profile attacks, prompting the Russian government to pass a new anti-extremism law. But the Helsinki Group says the legislation is too broad and has not been enforced.

Ms. Alexeyeva said observers also saw no improvement in the area of media freedom in Russia. She said in the regions beyond Moscow the situation is even worse, with many areas having no independent media at all.

Despite the report's grim analysis of present conditions in Russia, Ms. Alexeyeva is hopeful that, eventually, Russia's rights situation will improve.

"The situation doesn't give such a sign (reason) to hope. But I do hope," she said.

Government officials refused to comment on the report Thursday, saying they had not seen it.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was created in 1976 after the Helsinki conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to ensure the then-Soviet Union's compliance with the humanitarian articles of the final act of that conference.