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Russian Society Faces Human Rights Emergency

(Washington, DC--February 7, 2001) Civic activists in Russia have declared a human rights emergency in that country in response to the actions of President Vladimir Putin and his government. And they have taken the additional step of creating a civil opposition to what they see as the growing threat to civil liberties in their country.

Lev Ponomaryov, the executive director of the All-Russia Public Movement "For Human Rights," told an RFE/RL briefing in Washington yesterday that Putin's actions over the last year had prompted some 1,000 human rights activists representing 430 groups from throughout Russia to meet in Moscow in January and to take the unprecedented step of declaring a human rights emergency.

Ponomaryov said that the human rights situation in Russia had begun to deteriorate several years ago but that it had "become worse" in the months since Putin came to power. He said that "almost every day now" brings fresh reports of official actions against the constitutional rights of Russian citizens.

Often, these attacks on human rights occur without much publicity, Ponomaryov said, pointing to a recent instruction issued by the Office of the Prosecutor General stripping those being investigated of the ability to ask for the participation of non-governmental officials in that process. Because public defenders are so often in collusion with prosecutors, Ponomaryov continued, that limits the rights of individual citizens.

Moreover, he said Russian citizens cannot count on the courts to defend their rights as citizens of Western countries normally do. The courts work too closely with the executive power, he said, and that is why his group and others like it throughout Russia serve as ombudsmen to work with the executive branch to correct problems.

Ponomaryov added that in his view, the greatest threat to human rights at present are Kremlin plans to rewrite the constitution via what he called "a nomenklatura process" in which most Russian citizens would have no say at all. Such a process, he said, might be used to effectively strip Russians of many of the rights the current constitution now specifies that they enjoy.

Because of this, he said, the human rights organizations of Russia have been forced to declare themselves to be a civil opposition to the executive power, not in order to seek office for themselves but to pressure the government as well as political parties and movements to defend civil and human rights.