Human Rights Watch/Helsinki condemned President Boris Yeltsin's decision today to sign the highly discriminatory Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.

Russia has returned to the Soviet practice of issuing legislation restricting rights and freedoms," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. "The adoption of this law shows that Russia has no intention to respect its commitments to the Council of Europe nor to observe its own constitution in the area of freedom of conscience."

Only a complicated and lengthy appeal procedure with the Constitutional Court can begin the process of repealing the law. Ms. Cartner commented, "In the interim, though, enormous damage to religious life in Russia is inescapable before the even court reviews the law."

As Human Rights Watch/Helsinki noted in letters to President Yeltsin dated July 8 and September 10, the law establishes a highly discriminatory system dividing religious communities into "religious groups" and "religious organizations," and severely limiting the rights of the former. The law gives enormous discretional powers to local authorities to determine whether a religious community will be recognized as a "group" or an "organization," and mandates a fifteen-year waiting period for religious groups that seek to gain status as a religious organization. Considering the continuous attempts by local authorities to restrict the rights of non-traditional religious communities in Russia under the previous law on religious freedoms, large-scale repression of such religious communities following the law's entry into force is a real possibility.