The forthcoming E.U.-Russia Foreign Ministerial meeting will be a key moment for redefining the E.U.’s agenda with Russia. It is our hope that the meeting will begin a process of reinvigorating the E.U.’s human rights concerns regarding Russia, and that the present letter will inform this process.
The Commission’s recent communication on relations with Russia provides an excellent basis for resetting the human rights agenda with Russia. It sets out a sober and accurate analysis of the erosion of basic rights, asserts common European values as the foundation for the E.U.’s partnership with Russia, and envisages frank dialogue and clear, unambiguous messages to the Russian leadership as the means for advancing the relationship.
We agree with the communication’s assessment that the E.U. can “influence developments in Russia if it is ready to take up difficult issues . . . in a clear and forthright manner.” We hope that this will set the mode for the E.U.’s engagement with Russia on human rights, beginning with the Foreign Ministerial meeting. Many of Russia’s human rights problems are difficult and entrenched. But we are optimistic that a vigorous and coherent mode of engagement, reinforced by Russia’s other bilateral and multilateral partners, can lead to progress.
The European Union’s common foreign policy toward Russia should contain a prominent and explicit human rights component. This component could be constructed around three broad themes: political freedom, structural reform, and the situation in Chechnya. In this letter, we describe each of the three themes as well as specific concerns in each of these areas. We urge the European Union to both seek a political commitment on the part of the Russian government to act on these issue areas and to push the government for very specific steps to address problems in each of these areas.
Political freedoms, Russia’s greatest human rights achievement of the 1990s, have become significantly compromised in the past four years. Throughout this period, the Russian government aggressively sought editorial control over independent national television channels. As a result, all national television channels are now under the firm control of the Russian authorities, and plurality of opinion has all but disappeared from Russians’ television screens. In the run-up to the State Duma and presidential elections in December 2003 and March 2004 respectively, the government blatantly exploited this control to promote favored candidates and to marginalize and vilify opponents. As noted in the Commission communication, the government has also repeatedly displayed a willingness to selectively use the law to target specific persons or companies to promote its political agenda.
President Putin’s first term has been disastrous for press freedom. In 1999, several national television channels had independent editorial lines that frequently conflicted with the government positions. Starting in 2000, the government launched attacks on ORT, NTV, TV6, and TVS that led to their takeover by the Kremlin or its allies, or their closure. At the time, the Kremlin claimed these were business disputes; but in retrospect it is clear that they were politically motivated actions. With all major television stations now under state control, the government is now pressuring one of Russia’s most respected radio stations, Ekho Moskvy—the only remaining independent news outlet that reaches a large audience. While the print press and the Internet continue to reflect diverse opinions, these often do not reach the vast majority of Russians, who get their news through television.
In the past four years, the Russian government has remade the country’s political system into a so-called “managed democracy.” It has blatantly used its control over broadcast media and administrative resources to influence election results in the regions, installing loyal governors almost throughout the country. Relentless promotion of Kremlin loyalists and vilification of the opposition parties on state-controlled television in the six months prior to the December 2003 parliamentary elections resulted in a two-thirds majority in the State Duma for the pro-presidential party. These tactics were repeated in the run-up to the March 2004 presidential elections.
The results of the State Duma elections will have far-reaching consequences for the public debate on policy issues in the coming four years. While they were in parliament, liberal parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, had access to national television to weigh in on policy debates; their ouster from parliament will most likely mean that moderate viewpoints will all but disappear from the airwaves. Instead, the pro-Kremlin party, two nationalist parties, and the Communist Party will shape public debates in the coming years.
Selective Use of Justice
Over the past four years, the Russian government has repeatedly launched criminal investigations against perceived opponents, such as Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Akhmed Zakaev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others. In each of these cases, the timing of the investigation appeared linked to the Kremlin’s political agenda, even though the alleged crimes in most cases had been committed years ago and could have been investigated much earlier. Also, these prosecutions singled out a select group of individuals, while others who engaged in activities similar to this group, but who did not stand in the way of the Kremlin’s political agenda, were not targeted.
The practice of selective justice is not new. For years, the Federal Security Service (FSB) has pressed espionage charges against specific journalists, environmental activists, and scientists who worked with foreign contacts in sensitive areas, apparently to deter others from engaging in similar activities. For example, Russia has held scientist Igor Sutiagin in pretrial detention on such charges for more than four years, even though a court severely criticized the FSB’s conduct of the investigation in 2001. Sutiagin’s continued detention violates Russia’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Recommendations for E.U. Policy
The European Union should confront the Russian government, both publicly and privately, over each of these developments. Left unchallenged, restrictions on political freedoms are likely to worsen. The lack of plurality of opinion is also likely to stifle debates over critical institutional reform, thus inhibiting some of the Russian government’s essential goals. In particular, the European Union should urge the Russian government to:
- Allow for the creation of a truly independent television channel;
- Cease its pressure on radio station Ekho Moskvy;
- Instruct television stations to provide fair coverage of all candidates in elections, and to stop favoring Kremlin loyalists;
- Cease the selective prosecution of perceived opponents for political reasons. Instead, the Russian government should direct its efforts at establishing genuine rule of law;
- Release Igor Sutiagin from pretrial detention.
Structural reform of state institutions and their policies is a precondition for significant human rights progress in many areas of Russian society, including the criminal justice system, the armed forces, orphanages, and psychiatric institutions. When the Soviet Union collapsed more than ten years ago, the Russian Federation inherited an array of state institutions that were inherently incapable of ensuring respect for human rights in a democratic society. Despite a general recognition that major structural reform of these institutions was necessary, as of today, the only institution that has seen truly significant reform is the prison system. In other areas, reforms have been slow or non-existent.
Police Torture and Ill-Treatment
In November 1999, Human Rights Watch published the results of a two-year investigation into police torture in the Russian Federation.(1) At the time, we found that police torture and ill-treatment of detainees was rampant in Russia at the time of and immediately after the arrest. We also found that the Russian government was not taking any effective steps to combat torture and that courts relied heavily on evidence obtained under torture. Throughout the past four years, Russian nongovernmental organizations have continued to receive numerous credible complaints about police torture and ill-treatment, indicating that the problem continues to be severe.
Our research identified the lack of official recognition of the scale of police torture and ill-treatment as a major obstacle toward ending the practice. Almost all relevant officials downplayed the scale of torture, acknowledging only a handful of individual cases. In fact, officials do not gather data that would allow them to properly assess the situation. For example, the procuracy does not collect statistics on complaints received specifically about torture and ill-treatment, or on follow-up to these complaints. Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian government to adopt a national action plan to combat police torture and ill-treatment. As part of this plan, the Russian government should implement a code of conduct for interrogations, as recommended by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
Russia’s criminal procedure code stipulates that detainees can undergo a forensic medical examination only with permission from their case investigator or a judge. This provision, a holdover from the Soviet-era code, has barred timely access to forensic examiners for most victims of torture or ill-treatment. Detainees are often reluctant to request a referral from their case investigators, who often work on the criminal investigation together with the alleged perpetrators of the abuse. Investigators, in turn, have a vested interest in declining such referral requests because the forensic examination report could undermine their criminal investigation of the victim.
Under Russia’s Soviet-era criminal procedure code, detainees did not, as a rule, have access to judges in the early stages of their detention and evidence of torture or ill-treatment was often lost before they could petition a judge. With the entry into force of the new criminal procedure code in July 2002, detainees must now be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours of their arrest. It remains unclear whether detainees’ improved access to judges has facilitated access for torture victims to forensic examiners.
The Armed Forces
At any given time, around 600,000 young Russian men perform their obligatory, two-year military service in Russia’s armed forces. Many of them face systematic violent hazing in their first year of service, including ill-treatment and torture. The military authorities, and the Russian government as a whole, have failed to take appropriate steps to investigate and curb these abuses. Compounding the ill-treatment and torture, conscript soldiers also face systematic malnourishment and a lack of adequate medical care. With nowhere to turn for redress, hundreds—if not thousands—of conscripts subjected to such abuse every year flee their unit or commit suicide to escape harm. In the past two years, Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research into these abuses, interviewing more than one hundred conscripts and former conscripts, their parents, experts, lawyers, and officials in seven Russian cities.
Our research found that violent hazing is endemic at military bases throughout the Russian Federation and occurs in all types of forces, including the regular army, the Interior Ministry troops, railroad troops, emergency ministry troops, and others. We also found a broad uniformity in the methods of violent hazing practiced. Numerous conscript soldiers described to Human Rights Watch how older conscript soldiers systematically bullied them in their first year of service, making them perform degrading chores and physical exercises, and demanding money, alcohol, food, and cigarettes from them. They said that refusal to comply led to beatings, which most said were routine throughout their first year of service. Many conscript soldiers also said that at times they faced far more serious ill-treatment or even torture, including beatings with heavy objects, beatings while they were suspended in painful positions, scorching of skin with lit cigarettes, and sexual abuse.
Only a negligible percentage of these incidents result in disciplinary proceedings against the perpetrators, let alone their prosecution. The vast majority of victims of violent hazing continue to serve alongside their abusers, and fear that reporting the abuse could worsen their situation. Conscript soldiers who flee their military bases to escape abuse also rarely complain. In some cases, military authorities promise not to press charges against runaway conscripts in exchange for the conscript’s promise not to file a complaint about violent hazing. They may promise the victims of abuse, who want to avoid criminal charges, transfer to a different unit or discharge from the armed forces. In the few cases when conscript soldiers do seek redress for their treatment, the military procuracy usually does not conduct thorough investigations. Eyewitnesses to the ill-treatment, most of whom continue to serve on the military base and are vulnerable to ill-treatment themselves, are reluctant to implicate fellow conscript soldiers out of fear of retribution.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian government to take steps to restore the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms set out in the Code of Military Conduct aimed at ensuring the proper treatment of soldiers, including the creation of an independent body that would inspect conditions in the armed forces, such as an ombudsman for military servicemen.
Accountability and the Procuracy
Impunity is one of the largest obstacles to significant human rights improvement in Russia. In its research on topics ranging from police torture to abuses in Chechnya to domestic violence, Human Rights Watch found an abject failure on the part of Russia’s procuracy to effectively investigate human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice. In 1996, upon accession to the Council of Europe, Russia committed itself to reforming the procuracy in line with Council of Europe standards. The rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly at the time clarified that: “It is very important that the role of the prosecutor in court be clearly separated from the general supervision of legislative acts or the defense of human and other rights of citizens, which should belong to completely different institutions, like - in the case of the defense of human rights - that of an ombudsman.” However, these reforms were never carried out.
Various other institutions require structural change. In 1998, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the abusive treatment of children in Russian orphanages, in which we called for measures to deinstitutionalize abandoned and disabled children. Yet, no significant reforms have taken place and human rights violations in these institutions continue to be widespread. Psychiatric institutions are another type of institution in urgent need of considerable reform. During a recent visit to a psychiatric institution in Moscow, a Human Rights Watch researcher particularly found serious problems with procedures for committing people for involuntary treatment.
Recommendations for E.U. Policy
The European Union should urge the Russian government to make a commitment to these institutional reforms. In particular, it should call on the government to:
- Adopt a national action plan to combat torture. This plan should include the adoption of a code of conduct for interrogations as well as steps to collect credible data on torture practices;
- Authorize the publication of all reports by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture;
- Adopt measures to restore the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms set out in the Code of Military Conduct aimed at ensuring the proper treatment of soldiers, including establishing an ombudsman for military servicemen;
- Ratify the European Social Charter;
- Reform the procuracy, in line with commitments to the Council of Europe;
- Undertake to reform children’s and psychiatric institutions.
Chechnya continues to be the largest single human rights crisis in Europe and the only place on the continent where civilians die and “disappear” on a daily basis in the context of an armed conflict. Despite claims of normalization by the Russian government, warring parties remain entrenched and prospects of a resolution for the conflict very dim. As of this writing, more than one million Russian soldiers had fought in the second war in Chechnya, many coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder for which the government often did not provide proper treatment. As a result, the Chechnya war not only causes tremendous human suffering in Chechnya but is also having a corrosive effect on Russian society more generally.
Human Rights Watch believes that a peaceful resolution of the conflict is not possible without a meaningful accountability process. Yet, the Russian government continues to fail to establish such a process. Although the procuracy opened hundreds of criminal investigations into abuses by Russian troops, in most cases officials failed to conduct even the most basic investigative steps, including questioning eyewitnesses and relatives. As a result, most investigations remained unsolved and almost none were sent to the courts.
Due to the lack of meaningful investigations into human rights abuses, hundreds of Chechens have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights hoping to find justice there. In the past two years, Russian forces in Chechnya have harassed and threatened a number of these applicants. After having forcibly disappeared an applicant in June 2002, Russian forces extrajudicially executed another applicant and her family in May 2003. Nongovernmental groups that represent Chechen victims of human rights abuses before the European Court have documented threats against other applicants or their families in at least seven other cases.
Continued access for the international community to Chechnya is key for monitoring developments in the region. However, for most of 2003 no international monitors worked in the region. The OSCE Assistance Group’s mandate expired in late 2002 and Russia has since refused to agree to a mandate that contains a human rights component. The Council of Europe’s experts were withdrawn from Chechnya in early 2003, after a bomb attack on their convoy, and under a new agreement between the Council of Europe and Russia the experts will no longer have a permanent presence in Chechnya. In the four years of the conflict, Russia has not complied with U.N. resolutions calling for deployment of U.N. thematic mechanisms, with the exception of the representatives of the Secretary-General on children in armed conflict and internally displaced persons. Among those who have been seeking access for years are the Special Rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions. While agreeing to a visit by the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Russian authorities have canceled scheduled missions on a number of occasions, citing security conditions.
The Russian authorities have continued to put undue pressure on displaced persons to return to Chechnya, where they remain at risk. In 2003, they closed two more camps for internally displaced persons in Ingushetia. Although eventually some camp dwellers were allowed to resettle in Ingushetia, months of carrot-and-stick tactics had already resulted in the return of many to Chechnya. Following a September 2003 visit to the region, the U.N. Representative of the Secretary General for Internally Displaced Persons stated that “IDPs in camps in Ingushetia were acutely apprehensive that the camps might be closed and that they might be forced to return to a situation in Chechnya which they regarded to be unsafe…” He also noted that persons who had returned to Chechnya due to incentives asserted that “they had not found much of what they had been promised including compensation and adequate humanitarian assistance and that they remained seriously concerned about the security situation and their own safety.”
Similar concerns regarding the risks of return should be considered with respect to Chechens currently residing in E.U. member states who may be subject to return to Russia. Chechens in some E.U. member states have been subject to extradition proceedings; some failed Chechen asylum seekers have been deported. Many remaining Chechens who have not been granted refugee status are vulnerable to return. Indeed, the Commission communication refers to the conclusion of an E.U.-Russia readmission agreement as a means to promote cooperation to combat illegal immigration. Systematic discrimination against Chechens and the torture and ill-treatment of Chechens in detention are common throughout the Russian Federation. These are the very human rights concerns upon which the E.U. levels some of its harshest criticism of the Russian government. The E.U. must ensure that any agreements involving returns and any bilateral proceedings that could lead to return—i.e. extraditions—comply with E.U. member states’ regional and international obligations. Such obligations include the absolute prohibition against returning a person to a country where she or he is at risk of torture or ill-treatment, and the prohibition against extraditing a person if he might be prejudiced at his trial or punished, detained or restricted in his personal liberty by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinions.
Recommendations for E.U. Policy
The European Union should make it clear to the Russian government that Chechnya will remain high on its agenda until a permanent solution for the situation has been found and mass human rights violations have ended. In particular, it should:
- Censure the Russian government for abuses in Chechnya both publicly and privately, among others at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights;
- Insist on a meaningful accountability process for human rights abuses committed in Chechnya. The E.U. should make it clear that, should the Russian government fail to do so, it will launch an interstate complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights;
- Insist on an end to harassment of applicants to the European Court of Human Rights;
- Insist on access for international monitors to Chechnya. In particular, it should insist on a new monitoring mandate for the OSCE and invitations for the U.N. special mechanisms, most importantly the special rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions;
- Insist that no internally displaced persons are forced, directly or through indirect pressure, to return to Chechnya.
We hope that the E.U. will incorporate reforms in these areas in the joint Action Plan on Russia. It is critically important to insist that closer E.U.-Russia relations are based on shared values in the field of human rights and rule of law.
We thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter and wish you a productive meeting.
Human Rights Watch
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Mr. Declan Kelleher, COPS Ambassador
Ms. Barbara Jones, COEST Director
1. Confessions At Any Cost: Police Torture in Russia, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).