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The collapse of the ruble and the Russian banking system triggered a sharp political crisis in what President Boris Yeltsin had named the Year of Human Rights in Russia. In August, the Russian government defaulted on its short-term foreign debt and devalued the ruble, and the already crisis-stricken economy went into free-fall. President Yeltsin dismissed Prime Minister Kiriyenko, and, after a month of political haggling that nearly plunged the country into chaos, the parliament approved former Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov as Prime Minister.

The financial crisis came after years of government arrears on wages and pensions, widespread corruption, and insider privatization deals. The government’s response to these festering problems —inertia, empty promises, and neglect—was similar toits response to human rights problems in 1998. The government neglected long-standing problems of police torture, appalling prison conditions and the grave abuse of conscripts. The federal government imposed further restrictions on freedom of information and freedom of conscience, and it did nothing to redress infringements on civil rights by regional leaders. Indeed the only positive developments were the transfer of the prison system to the Ministry of Justice, the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.

Political freedoms were increasingly under attack in 1998, both on a federal and regional level. Freedom of expression, which had flourished since the end of the cold war, suffered several blows in 1998. Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov’s decision immediately following his appointment in mid-September to ban government officials from talking to reporters without prior permission was reminiscent of attempts by other governments in the C.I.S. to stifle freedom of information. New rules under discussion at the time of this writing threatened to compromise freedom of speech on the Internet and endanger the further development of Russia’s emerging civil society. Draft regulations submitted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) regarding the Internet and E-mail would allow the security services to monitor all such communications without obtaining prior permission, through a black box Internet service providers would have to pay for themselves.

In August, a Moscow tax inspectorate ordered the confrontational weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) to pay a $127,000 fine after an apparently politically motivated audit. According to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, tax inspectors questioned several undocumented expenses made, among others, during trips to Chechnya and Afghanistan. Despite rumors that the paper would be closed, it was still publishing as of this writing.

Russia’s provinces continued to devolve into fiefdoms that engage in civil and political rights violations with impunity from Moscow. In an apparent exchange for support of its policies or promises not to seek secession, the central government turned a blind eye to corruption by regional leaders, and refused to react to blatant human rights violations in the regions. Chief among these were harassment of ethnic minorities and violations of press freedom, freedom of conscience, and electoral rights.

Journalists in Russia’s regions suffered harassment as regional governors and presidents tried to expand their control over local media outlets. Regional leaders were believed to be behind threats, beatings, and even murders of numerous journalists. They also closed a variety of radio stations and newspapers. According to the National Press Institute, the economic crisis that started in August forced numerous regional newspapers to lay off staff, reduce the papers’ frequency and volume, and cancel subscriptions to outside news sources.

According to information from the Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), at least nine journalists were murdered in the first eight months of 1998. Six of them may have been killed for investigating and exposing criminal structures and corruption in government and banks; in most of these cases, police were quick to announce that they were a result of family arguments. Through July, the GDF registered at least sixty-six attacks on journalists, editors, and newspapers in regions throughout Russia, including Kaliningrad, Kirov, Saransk, Bashkortostan, and Rostov; this represented a sharp rise since 1997. In by far the most convincing case of government collusion in the death of a journalist, on June 7, Larisa Yudina, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Sovietskaya Kalmykia Segodnya [Soviet Kalmykia Today] was found stabbed to death by a pond in the Kalmyk capital, Elista. She had last been seen heading out to meet a man who had promised to give her documents about misappropriation of funds by the Kalmyk Republic’s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Kalmyk authorities had previously threatened Yudina with closure of her newspaper. By November, the Procurator General in Moscow (which, under pressure from parliament and the media, immediately took charge of the investigation) had arrested four suspects. The Kalmyk authorities reverted to Soviet practices in early March when they placed Lidia Dordzhieva, head of the humanitarian organization “Heart to Heart,” in a psychiatric hospital after she had led a hunger strike of disabled people and mothers of large families to protest government allowance arrears. Doctors diagnosed her as healthy, she was released after about a week, and later granted asylum abroad.

In the run-up to the June presidential elections in the Republic of Bashkiriya, incumbent Murtaza Rakhimov harassed those media outlets that had evaded his tight control. After Radio Titan, the only independent radio station in the republic, broadcast an interview with three opposition candidates, police raided its offices, beating and rounding up staff members and supporters who had held a round-the-clock vigil around the building in anticipation of the government’s response. Following the incident, the government closed Radio Titan; it also harassed two of the region’s last opposition newspapers by closing Vecherny Neftekamsk [Evening Neftekamsk] in March and through a violent August 14 attack on Sergei Fufayev, of the newspaper Otechestvo (Fatherland). Both Otechestvo and Vmeste [Together], another opposition newspaper, are printed outside Bashkiriya; police at least twice confiscated copies of these newspapers as they were being transported in by car. Vecherny Neftekamsk appealed the closure to the Supreme Court. As of this writing, the paper remained closed.

President Rakhimov easily won the elections after striking three opposition candidates off the ballot. The Supreme Court ruled unlawful the Bashkir government’s refusal to register two of these candidates and the postponement of the elections. Despite theserulings, neither the local nor central election commission annulled the election results.

Russia’s discriminatory religion law, adopted in September 1997, served to legitimize an already existing practice by regional authorities of arbitrary restrictions and harassment of “non-traditional” religious associations (e.g., non-Orthodox or not among the mainstream Orthodox denominations). Throughout the year, various regions have adopted new legislation that is even more restrictive than the federal law. Local authorities also attempted illegally to revoke the registration of religious associations, refused to register new ones, attempted to evict religious associations from Church buildings with the aim of granting the buildings to the Orthodox Church, arbitrarily evicted religious groups from public buildings where they had worshiped for several years, and imposed arbitrary and disproportionate rent hikes. Several religious associations reported arbitrary police searches of worship rooms and Church buildings. Among the most frequently targeted religious associations were the Pentecostal Church, the Catholic Church, alternative branches of the Orthodox Church, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The federal government ignored the overwhelming majority of cases of harassment against religious associations in the regions. The Keston Institute reported that in one exceptional case, the Prime Minister’s office apparently interfered with a local government official’s unlawful activities when his attempts to close a Lutheran parish in the Republic of Khakasiya threatened to become an international incident. In September, however, when intense attention from Western media subsided, a local court simply closed the parish down. In an attempt to appease international concern and to avoid U.S. Senate-proposed sanctions, government officials repeatedly promised to issue liberal implementation instructions to the law that would weaken its harshest provisions. However, the Ministry of Justice instructions issued in March upheld all of the law’s restrictions and continued to deny religious associations the same rights as those associations that were registered in the pre-perestroika Soviet state. In July, several religious rights organizations submitted an appeal against certain provisions of the law to the Constitutional Court, which has not yet heard the case.

Regional governments continued to infringe on freedom of movement through a restrictive civilian registration system, despite a Constitutional Court decision ordering a loosening of a federal law governing registration. This was particularly practiced in the wealthier regions, such as Moscow, and in regions with large refugee populations, such as southern Russia. For example, the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, announced in March on public television that he would not implement the Constitutional Court decision and that he had instructed Moscow’s police departments to continue to enforce the old regulations. The federal authorities apparently took no steps to force the Moscow city government to comply with the court’s decision.

The Moscow city police continued to enforce registration rules in a predatory and discriminatory way, beating and extorting bribes predominantly from people with dark skin, invading the privacy of their apartments, and destroying identity documents. As was the case a year earlier during Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations, police harassment and violence against ethnic minorities sharply increased during the Olympic Youth Games, held in July. During one of these routine document checks in June, Moscow police even detained a Council of Europe representative with dark features who had come to Moscow to participate in a human rights education seminar. Also during the games, police forcibly removed homeless people from Moscow and forced Médécins sans Frontièrs to close its medical aid program for the homeless at the time of the games.

Police violence against ethnic minorities in Moscow, and its silent endorsement by Mayor Luzhkov, fostered an atmosphere of impunity for racist violence; this no doubt contributed to the upsurge in skinhead attacks on minority groups. The attack on an African-American U.S. Marine in May attracted media attention but was not an isolated incident. Dark-skinned people, including refugees and students from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Africa, and Asia constantly encountered harassment, threats, and violence from teenage groups. Around Adolf Hitler’s birthday in late April, skinheads escalated violence against Asians and Africans. Skinhead groups were also blamed for exploding a bomb in the Marina Roshcha Synagogue in Moscow in May. Krasnodar province governor Nikolai Kondratenko made blatantly racist and anti-Semitic statements; however no cases of police or Cossack violence against ethnic minorities were reported in 1998. The federal government sought to resolve the problem by prohibiting fascist groups, without addressing the problem of official racism and anti-Semitism.

Refugee protections deteriorated significantly in part due to the economic crisis. Police improperly denied many asylum seekers’ claims for status, and asylum seekers regularly lost court appeals against such decisions. Russia also failed to grant protection against persecution by security services from the person’s country of origin. In one outrageous case, Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies attempted to kidnap Ali Gassanov— an Azerbaijani citizen whom the UNHCR had recognized as a refugee in Russia— in collaboration with the St. Petersburg police. The Russian Procuracy General had not only turned down Azerbaijan’s request to extradite Gassanov, it had ordered the St. Petersburg police to guarantee him protection from harm. According to Civic Assistance, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to refugees, the Federal Migration Service cooperated more with nongovernmental organizations than it had in previous years, with the exception of the Moscow migration service.

Russia’s criminal justice system degenerated and moved further away from Council of Europe standards. Government commitments before the Council of Europe to reform the procuracy, the FSB, and the code of criminal procedure remained unfulfilled.

Human Rights Watch research in 1998 on police torture found that corruption and abuse were the rule rather than exception. Criminal justice officials were known to solicit and accept bribes to drop charges and investigations. Crime-solving statistics were improbably high, due in part to torture. The Russian media in 1998 published an unprecedented number of articles about torture, yet this new public awareness did not move the Russian government to acknowledge the problem in a meaningful way or to take appropriate measures to deal with it.

According to Human Rights Watch research conducted in 1998 in three of Russia’s regions, torture occurred mostly in the early hours of detention when police isolated suspects from family and attorneys. Police forcibly extracted confessions using beatings, asphyxiation, electroshock, and other forms of physical and psychological violence. Demands for a lawyer were routinely refused and often resulted in more violence.

Torture victims who confessed faced almost insurmountable obstacles in proving that they had done so under duress. The Soviet-era criminal procedure code grants victims access to forensic medical examinations after gaining permission from investigators, who routinely refused such requests. Police and procurator’s offices frequently used forced confessions as the basis for criminal cases, and judges frequently used such confessions as the basis for a conviction.

Police tortured with almost complete impunity. The procuracy routinely reviewed complaints of physical abuse, but such procedures amounted to mere formalities at best. In the few cases where criminal proceedings were instituted against police officers, the procurator’s office gave no priority to the investigation and often tried to sabotage the proceedings, delaying and closing them without good reason. Police sometimes intimidated complaining torture victims as well as procurators and judges dealing with criminal cases against them.

An extreme shortage of judges slowed criminal trials and overwhelmed sitting judges. Acquittal rates were below one percent, reminiscent of the Soviet era. For example, the Moscow City Court tried to strip power from a leading Russian judge, Sergei Pashin who headed the presidential department for judicial reform before it was disbanded in December 1995. Pashin frequently acquitted defendants if evidence provided by the prosecution was insufficient and he actively filed judicial inquiries to police stations about torture allegations.

The combination of torture, low quality criminal investigations and court practice have led to serious judicial mistakes. For example, twenty-five-year-old Sergei Mikhailov from Arkhangelsk province was sentenced to death in April 1995 for raping and murdering a minor in October 1994. He confessed soon after his arrest, apparently under torture. However, several years later, after an identical murder was committed in the town, objective evidence was found that another man was guilty of the murder. Instead of releasing Mikhailov, the procurator’s office in Arkhangelsk has stubbornly tried to obscure its mistakes. Despite the fact that two special investigators in Arkhangelsk and the procuracy of a neighboring province concluded in June 1997 and June 1998 respectively that Mikhailov’s conviction should be overturned, the procurator’s office had refused to initiate proceedings as of this writing. As of this writing, Mikhailov had been in detention for four years, three and a half of them on death row.

Conditions in Russia’s severely overcrowded prisons continued to be torturous. Defendants often spend excessively long times in pre-trial detention, sometimes up to four years or more, due to delays in the criminal investigation process and especially in the courts. Hygiene is very poor and tuberculosis increasingly common. Complying with Council of Europe conditions, the Russian government transferred the prison system from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. Minister of Justice Pavel Krashenninikov announced plans to alleviate overcrowding by limiting terms in pre-trial detention to one year, but in the midst of the political and economic crisis, it was unclear whether these plan would be realized.

Russia once again did not impose an official moratorium on the death penalty, although no executions were carried out. Death row prisoners remained in legal limbo as death sentences were generally not commuted to life imprisonment and courts continued to sentence people to death leading to growing numbers of death row prisoners. For example, in Arkhangelsk, the number of death row prisoners had grown to fifteen by July, while the average before the unofficial 1996 moratorium had been three to five. Due to the lack of facilities many death row prisoners were placed in special punishment cells.

The Russian government systematically failed to respond to violence against women. In the face of rampant rape and domestic violence, police and prosecutors routinely rejected or discouraged complaints, often suggesting that female complainants either provoked or fabricated attacks. In the rare cases in which rape reports were investigated, women were subjected to highly invasive and seemingly irrelevant broad inquiries into their psychological state, reputations, and sexual histories.

The FSB continued its prosecution on espionage charges of Alexander Nikitin, former navy captain and environmental activist. Nikitin was arrested by the FSB (and later released under city arrest) in 1996 for co-authoring a report for the Norwegian environmental group, Bellona Foundation, on the dangers of nuclear contamination caused by the Russian Northern Fleet. In violation of the constitution, the FSB’s last indictment (like its previous indictments) cited secret legal acts that are central to its case against Nikitin. Moreover it improperly cited the Law on State Secrets. The offices of the St. Petersburg procurator and theProcurator General refused to acknowledge this and sent the case to court.

Nikitin’s requests for the Supreme Court to hear his case in first instance and to be tried by a panel of three professional judges were turned down. Subsequently, a panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors of the St. Petersburg City Court were to hear Nikitin’s case. Serious concern existed about the fairness of the trial, as the two lay assessors needed to undergo a FSB security clearance that could veto lay assessors FSB did not like. In a positive development, presiding judge Sergei Golets demanded to see the secret decrees and allowed the press and public to attend the first hour of the trial, which started on October 20.

In November 1997, the FSB detained military journalist Grigory Pasko at Vladivostok airport after a trip to Japan and accused him of espionage. There were allegations that the FSB had fabricated the charges against Pasko in retaliation for his highly critical publications about environmental pollution and corruption in Russia’s pacific fleet. Pasko had faced frequent FSB harassment since he produced a documentary film about the Russian government’s dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan in 1993. This documentary shocked the Japanese public and embarrassed the Russian government. The local procuracy and the Procurator General ignored appeals from Pasko’s lawyers and human rights organizations about systematic violations of procedural law during the investigation. The court hearing on the case was set for late October.

In the ethnically complex northern Caucasus republic of Dagestan, tensions between various ethnic groups, especially the Dargins and Avars, rose sharply, and many feared inter-ethnic conflict. Unrest continued throughout the summer, including the storming of Dagestan’s parliament in May, several hostage-takings, and attacks on the mayor of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.





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