Accessibility links

(Un)Civil Societies Report: March 20, 2002

20 March 2002, Volume 3, Number 12
UN RIGHTS CHIEF CALLS FOR 'CREDIBLE RESPONSE' TO CHECHNYA ATROCITIES. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has called for a "credible response from the Russian authorities commensurate with the scale of the allegations of serious human rights abuses" in Chechnya in a report released 12 March. Robinson publicized her findings in anticipation of the 18 March opening of the 53-member UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The report notes accusations of rape, torture, and looting by Russian troops in the breakaway region. Robinson also called on Chechen fighters to stop kidnapping civilians and officials. She cited reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Memorial Society, all of which have documented abuses allegedly committed by Russian troops. Russia has opened a total of 106 criminal cases of such matters in 2001, with 17 military personnel convicted so far. Robinson's report on the situation in Chechnya was issued in compliance with last year's Commission resolution 2001/14, sponsored by the European Union, calling for investigation into reports of atrocities.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced in April that it would not be bound by the resolution, which it deemed "unobjective and unbalanced." The motion called for access to the North Caucasus conflict area for five UN special rapporteurs or representatives mandated to cover the topics of torture, summary executions, internally displaced persons, violence against women, and children in armed conflict. Russian authorities repeatedly stalled on requests by the UN to allow the rapporteurs to enter, and none has been able to travel to the area to date. Vladimir Kalamanov, Russian presidential envoy for human rights in Chechnya, on 13 March rejected as misplaced the high commissioner's criticism of Russian troops' brutality in Chechnya, Interfax reported. Russia "is trying to comply" with the international conventions on human rights that it has signed, he said. He added that Robinson relies on information from Human Rights Watch, which does not have an office in Chechnya, and interprets the information she receives subjectively. Human Rights Watch has an office in Moscow and regularly sends researches to the North Caucasus.

Commission observers believe that prospects are uncertain for another resolution on Chechnya this year, with the U.S., not a member of the Commission currently and therefore unable to support EU initiatives, and with international recognition of the role of Russia in the war against terrorism overshadowing concerns about abuses in Chechnya. Since 11 September, U.S. officials have acknowledged Russian complaints about the connection of the Chechen resistance movement to international terrorist networks, but U.S. officials say only some elements are related to Osama bin Laden and his followers. Meanwhile, as the world focuses on Central Asia, attacks on civilians continue unabated in Chechnya with devastating effect. Several hundred residents of the village of Starye Atagi south of Grozny converged on the government building in the Chechen capital on 13 March to protest Russian troops' brutality against civilians during repeated security operations in the village since the beginning of the year, Reuters and Interfax reported. The protesters brought with them the burned bodies of several victims of those search operations. Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov promised that the killings will be thoroughly investigated and those found responsible will be punished. Commenting on Russian television coverage of the Grozny protest, Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich said in Moscow on 13 March that the bodies brought from Starye Atagi were those of Chechen fighters who showed "fierce resistance" but were killed in a "special operation" by special Russian antiterrorist units, Interfax reported.

Since most allegations of atrocities in Chechnya are based on interviews with displaced persons by local and international human rights monitors �- reports which Moscow routinely rejects as biased -- those concerned about justice in Chechnya have stressed the importance of condemnation of the criminal actions of Russian troops by pro-Moscow Chechen administrators and Russian military officials themselves. This week, a Russian Army officer who defected to the United States said his airborne unit executed Chechen civilians, "The New York Times" reported on 17 March. Captain Andrei Samorodov said pro-fascist elements in his unit, the 21st Airborne Brigade, encouraged the executions. When he tried to intervene and stop the roadside executions of Chechen civilians, Samorodov was beaten and his life was threatened. Unidentified men also came to his house in Stavropol and killed his family dog. In November 1999, Samorodov deserted his unit and defected to the United States, traveling through Mexico. He was granted political asylum in May 2000. "I love Russia and I have been in love with the Russian Army since childhood," Samorodov told "The New York Times." "But I was faced with a choice: I could either leave or die."

Last week, Akhmed Zakaev, envoy from the Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov, visited chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte at the Hague war crimes tribunals in an effort to raise awareness of allegations of war crimes in Chechnya and call for the creation of a tribunal to address them. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the meeting as "incompatible with [Del Ponte's] status and mandate" and professed to be "bewildered" as to why Maskhadov's envoy would visit a Security Council-mandated tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The implication is that Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would block any attempt to examine allegations about its war crimes, but human rights groups hope for domestic prosecution and greater involvement from the international community to prevent further crimes against humanity. (This report was based on "RFE/RL Newsline," on 11, 12, 14, 15, and 18 March and the UN report available at CAF

TRIAL OF FORMER PRISON DIRECTOR BEGINS. Former Armenian prison service head Mushegh Saghatelian went on trial in Yerevan on 13 March on multiple charges of mistreatment or torture of detainees, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He is also accused of offering a $50,000 bribe to one of the suspects in the October 1999 Armenian parliament shootings if he claimed that the killings were masterminded by President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and of then manufacturing evidence to substantiate that claim. Saghatelian, who is close to the opposition Hanrapetutiun party, pleaded not guilty, claiming that the charges against him are politically motivated. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

PARLIAMENT DRAFTS LAW ON ALTERNATIVE MILITARY SERVICE. The Armenian parliament's Defense and Security Committee unveiled a bill on 12 March that would allow members of registered religious organizations that oppose military service to perform alternative "civilian service" under the supervision of the Defense Ministry, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. According to the Armenian Constitution, all young men must serve for two years in the armed forces upon reaching the age of 18. The alternative "civilian" service will last 42 months, which can be reduced by one year on payment of 1 million drams ($1,770). Young men who opt for civilian service will subsequently be ineligible to hold any post in the government, judiciary, or law-enforcement agencies. Thirteen members of the Jehovah's Witnesses are currently serving prison terms in Armenia for their refusal to perform military service. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

PRESIDENT DECLARES NEW AMNESTY... President Heidar Aliyev signed a decree on 13 March pardoning or reducing the sentences of 89 prisoners, including some considered to be political prisoners, Turan reported. Seventy-five of those released were serving sentences for alleged crimes against the state, including the abortive uprisings of October 1994 and March 1995, and alleged plots to assassinate President Aliyev in 1993 and 1994. Also released were Azerbaijan Popular Front Party members Faradj Guliev and Asaf Guliev, and former Interior Ministry official Nizami Godjaev, who was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in March 2000 on charges of conspiracy to murder, abusing his official position, illegal possession of arms, and accepting bribes (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 11, 17 March 2000). Azerbaijani human rights activists welcomed the amnesty, but stressed that some political prisoners remain incarcerated. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

...BUT 115 MEMBERS OF SPECIAL POLICE REMAIN IN PRISON. On the seventh anniversary of the insurrection led by Rovshan Djavadov, commander of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry's special police division, 115 of the 340 members of that force sentenced for their participation in what the Azerbaijani leadership claims was part of a bid to overthrow President Aliyev remain in prison, Turan reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION STAGES NEW PROTEST. An estimated 5,000-6,000 people participated in a demonstration in Baku on 16 March convened by the reformers' wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), Turan reported. Participants blamed the current Azerbaijani leadership for the economic hardship in which most of the population lives and called for the government to resign. Ali Kerimov, who heads the AHCP reformers' wing, appealed to the opposition and the population to join forces against the ruling regime, arguing, "we have nothing left to lose." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

BELIEVERS UNHAPPY OVER STATE COMMITTEE'S 'ILLEGAL' DEMANDS. On a recent visit to Azerbaijan, Keston News Service heard repeated complaints from a variety of religious groups about the demands made of them by the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, which is handling the compulsory re-registration process. Believers reported having difficulty submitting their documents and being obliged to amend their legal statutes and restrict the areas in which they operate. They claim many of these demands go well beyond what is specified in the country's religion law. "At first there was freedom after independence, but soon they started to throttle us. They're returning to the old Soviet system," one Protestant pastor said. (Keston News Service, 11-15 March)

TWO SUSPECTED KIDNAPPERS OF JOURNALIST SENTENCED FOR LIFE. A panel of Minsk Oblast Court judges sentenced Valery Ihnatovich and Maksim Malik, two suspected kidnappers of Belarusian journalists Dzmitry Zavadski, to life imprisonment on 14 March, Belapan reported. Apart from the abduction of Zavadski, the court found Ihnatovich and Malik, former members of Belarus' elite Almaz police unit, guilty on one count of murder and several counts of armed assault and robbery. Two more defendants, Alyaksey Huz and Syarhey Savushkin, were found guilty of complicity in the crimes of Ihnatovich and Malik and sentenced to 25 and 12 years, respectively. The trial, which was held behind closed doors, did not give any clue as to what happened to Zavadski after he disappeared. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

OPPOSITION LEADER DETAINED FOR DEMONSTRATION ON CONSTITUTION DAY. Police on 15 March arrested Mikalay Statkevich, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly), charging him with the organization of an unauthorized demonstration, Belapan reported. Some 500 people marched in downtown Minsk earlier the same day to commemorate Constitution Day. The Supreme Soviet promulgated a new constitution of independent Belarus in 1994. In 1996, a rigged referendum approved of what was officially termed as "amendments" to the 1994 constitution but in fact was a wholly rewritten basic law to suit the authoritarian rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

FIVE YOUTHS HEAVILY FINED FOR DEFAMING LUKASHENKA. The Shklou District Court on 15 March imposed fines of some $1,000 on Dzmitry Shalashkou, Mikhail Kisyalyou, and Dzyanis Senakosau, and of some $200 on Alyaksandr Paulovich and Mikhail Patupchyk for staging a street performance that was found to defame President Lukashenka. The five, who belong to the Zubr youth opposition group, were found guilty of having paraded on 14 August through the Haradzets state farm -- which was once managed by Lukashenka -- dressed as four white-coated doctors in pursuit of a mustachioed Lukashenka look-alike. The alleged Lukashenka impersonator kept stopping passersby to ask "Do you know me? I'm your old boss. I'm back!" The fake doctors then approached the passersby and asked, "Have you seen our patient? He has escaped from a mental hospital!" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

HAGUE SENTENCES BOSNIAN SERB CAMP WARDEN. The Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 15 March sentenced Milorad Krnojelac to 7 1/2 years' imprisonment for atrocities committed while he was a warden at the KP Dom prison camp near Foca in 1992-93, Reuters and AP reported. He was convicted on four counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. Inmates -- including mentally and gravely ill Muslims -- suffered starvation, forced labor, and both psychological and physical abuse. Many were killed. The Foca area also witnessed the systematic rape of thousands of Muslim women and girls. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March)

VICE PRESIDENT SEEKS FORGIVENESS FROM ETHNIC TURKS. Vice President Angel Marin used the occasion of the "Forgiveness" religious holiday to apologize for violence against the ethnic Turkish minority during the so-called revival process in 1972, Minelres, an Internet discussion group on minorities issues, reported on 18 March citing local media. Speaking at a commemoration on 17 March organized by the party of the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedom, Marin admitted that all of Bulgaria's people should equally bear the guilt and responsibility for silently watching the forceful change in the names of the Turkish population. The meeting took place in the village of Barutin, which was the center of the violence. (Minelres, 19 March)

CROATS WARN OF REFUGEE EXODUS FROM WESTERN BOSNIA. The head of the Croatian government's Department for Returnees and Refugees, Lovre Pejkovic, warned on 17 March of a possible fresh wave of refugees from western Bosnia-Herzegovina. Pejkovic said about 15 refugees a day are arriving in Croatia, mainly from the regions of Drvar and Grahovo, and stressed that authorities must ensure that such emigrants do not settle in abandoned homes waiting for their rightful owners, FENA reported. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Bosnian Croats on 18 March asked the government and Bosnian authorities for help in solving the problem of Bosnian Croats reportedly being evicted. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

FIRST WOMAN TO HEAD CROATIAN UNIVERSITY. The Zagreb University Senate selected Jasna Helena Mencer, a professor at the chemical engineering faculty, as the university's first female rector since its foundation in 1669, AP reported on 12 March. In the 1980s, Milka Planinc, a Croat, served as prime minister of Yugoslavia, the first time a woman held that post in any Balkan country. Women have since served as prime minister in Turkey and Bulgaria. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

SECRET POLICE FILES OPENED TO PUBLIC. Czech President Vaclav Havel signed a law on 14 March opening the files of the StB, the communist Czechoslovakia's feared secret police, to the public, Radio Praha reported. According to the law, any Czech citizen who is at least 18 years old can view any file. Prior to the law, Czechs only had access to their own StB records. Critics of the law argued that opening the files could lead to the spread of incorrect allegations, since the StB often falsified information in the files it kept on citizens. But Havel said the need for truth outweighed the risks. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

LOWER HOUSE OVERRIDES PRESIDENTIAL VETO... The Chamber of Deputies on 12 March overrode President Havel's veto on a law on the institutional protective care of children, CTK reported. The Roman Catholic Church had also objected to the law, which stipulates that children who are ordered by courts to institutional education may be placed in the care of foster families instead of living in children's homes. Havel vetoed the law first approved by the chamber in February, saying the legislation could be abused to violate the rights of children, who may now be placed in the care of foster families on a contractual basis and without an earlier court inspection. But the Fund for Children at Risk said the legislation is a big step forward, Radio Praha reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

RACIALLY MOTIVATED CRIME ON THE RISE. Racially motivated crime rose by some 25 percent last year, the daily "Pravo" reported on 11 March, citing an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. A total of 402 such crimes were investigated by police, as opposed to 311 in 2000. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

PRISON CONDITIONS A 'SERIOUS CONCERN,' SAYS MP. Conditions at Republican Prison Hospital are of "serious concern," says Elene Tevdoradze, head of the Georgian parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, the NGO bulletin "Human Rights in Georgia" reports. Tevdoradze says she frequently gets complaints from prisoners. One prisoner at the penitentiary, Levan Lagidze, 45, died recently of tuberculosis; arrested for drug dealing, he had been sentenced to nine years. "In prisoner Lomidze's case -- when he was not transferred to court, he died in prison. The situation is horrible, prisoners die," says Tevdoradze. The Medical Department of the Ministry of Justice offered to pardon Lomidze on health grounds, but he died before his court hearing. The prison hospital has had no electricity for two months, doctors cannot perform surgery, and inmates cannot cook meals. In January, five prisoners died in the hospital. Human rights monitors also report nine HIV-positive prisoners in Georgia. ("Human Rights in Georgia," No. 3 (37), March 2002).

'LITTLE DANUBE SUMMIT' SAYS BENES DECREES HAVE NO PLACE IN EU. Leaders participating in the third so-called "Little Danube Summit" met in Esztergom, Hungary, on 11 March agreed that the Benes Decrees should be abolished, although they stopped short of demanding that the World War II-era Czechoslovak decrees be annulled prior to EU expansion, Hungarian and international media reported. The summit was hosted by Premier Viktor Orban and attended by Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel; the premier of the German state of Baden-Wuerttenberg, Erwin Teufel; and by Bavarian State Minister Erwin Huber. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

JOURNALIST RESPONDS TO 'WASHINGTON POST' ARTICLE. In a response to the article published by columnist Jackson Diehl in the "The Washington Post" earlier this month, journalist Balint Vazsonyi on 12 March came to the defense of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, calling Diehl's criticism of the premier "unfair," Hungarian media reported. Vazsonyi said that Diehl does not read Hungarian newspapers, is not a specialist on Hungary, and gets his information from "biased sources." He explained that Orban's use of the term "eletter," which Diehl interprets as the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi "Lebensraum" (living space) was merely a "reference to the environment." Vazsonyi said that, in using the term, Orban had in mind economic cooperation with the 3 million ethnic Hungarians who live beyond the country's borders, and thus it was not an "irredentist" idiom. Vazsonyi alleged that Diehl likely grew used to former U.S. President Bill Clinton's support for socialists around the word during his eight-year term in office. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

INITIATIVE GROUP LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM. An initiative group composed of prominent Kazakh public figures, scientists, and journalists announced their intention to launch a campaign in support of constitutional reform, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 18 March. The current constitution, which was adopted by Kazakhstan in 1995, does not meet standards for the state's fundamental law, the group told reporters. The 1995 constitution "has concentrated huge power in the hands of the head of state, which contradicts commonly accepted democratic principles," they said. They listed among the flaws of the current constitution the limited authority of parliament, "which is deprived of oversight functions and real leverage to influence the executive branch's policy." Yevgenii Zhovtis, director of the Kazakh International Human Rights and Legality Bureau, said the constitutional reform group has not yet decided what mechanism of reform should be chosen -- a radical overhaul of the constitution currently in effect or the drafting of an entirely new document. (Interfax-Kazakhstan, 18 March)

SIX KILLED AS POLICE OPEN FIRE ON DEMONSTRATORS. Six people died on 17 March and up to 61 were injured in a clash between police and some 2,000 persons who gathered in the Aksyi district of Djalalabad Oblast to demand the release of parliament deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, Reuters reported. Police opened fire on the protesters, who pelted them with stones and tried to occupy a local police station in what Interior Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev claimed on 18 March was an attempted coup. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

BEKNAZAROV TRIAL POSTPONED. Presiding Judge Bolot Mombekov announced on 18 March that he has suspended indefinitely the trial of Deputy Beknazarov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Public prosecutor Choibek Sydykov has demanded a seven-year sentence for alleged dereliction of duty in failing to bring murder charges against Djaparalii Kamchybekov, who killed a man in self-defense in 1995. The judge had rejected a 12 March request by Beknazarov for Kamchybekov, who appeared as a witness, to undergo a medical examination to determine the cause of serious bruises on his face ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 19 March)

OPPOSITION ACCUSED OF TRYING TO 'DESTABILIZE' COUNTRY. In a statement released on 18 March, President Askar Akaev alleged that recent violent unrest in the south, which led to the shooting deaths of at least six demonstrators, was sparked by opposition groups trying to "destabilize" the country, Interfax reported. "A group that includes well-known political figures colluded in organizing large-scale unauthorized rallies in several villages on Sunday [17 March]" to demand Beknazarov's release, Akaev claimed. The president pledged to supervise a speedy and unbiased investigation of the tragedy. "The events in the Aksyi district have demonstrated the danger and inadmissibility of political extremism and contempt for the law," Akaev said. "Although the Beknazarov case is being investigated in full conformity with the law, the judicial bodies and the public have been experiencing unprecedented pressure," he said. "Those irresponsible politicos who push people to death for the sale of their own ambitions must think better of it and cease destabilizing the country by every means at their disposal." He added, "As president I must and will use the rights and wherewithal invested in me by the Kyrgyz Constitution and legislation to protect constitutional order, peace and accord in the country," he said. (Interfax, 18 March)

JUSTICE MINISTER ANNOUNCES NEW CENSUS LAW. Justice Minister Hixhet Mehmeti announced that his ministry will soon present a revised law for conducting a census, "Nova Makedonija" reported on 13 March. Mehmeti said that the long-overdue census is not connected with the coming parliamentary elections and should not be carried out during the election campaign . The revised law regulates the use of languages during the next census -- it will be conducted in both Macedonian and Albanian. As provided for by recent amendments to the constitution, the new law states that all ethnic communities will be proportionally represented at all levels of the census administration. The draft law also provides for some changes in taking count of Macedonian citizens living abroad. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

BULGARIAN MINORITY ORGANIZATION REGISTERED. The spokesman of the Association of Bulgarians in the Republic of Macedonia, Vlado Perev, said in an interview with Radio Blagoevgrad that a Skopje court has officially registered his organization, reported on 14 March. According to Perev, who is a journalist, it is the first time in history that a Macedonian court has registered an organization with the word "Bulgarian" in its name. The organization was founded by five Skopje residents and is headed by Lyuben Metodievski. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March)

JUSTICE MINISTER ATTACKS BESSARABIAN CHURCH. Ion Morei said on 11 March that the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church is "the religious arm" of the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) and has the same objectives as that party, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. He said both the PPCD, which is organizing the ongoing demonstrations in Chisinau, and the Bucharest-subordinated Bessarabian Church "are opposed to Moldova's statehood, infringe the law and defy democratic norms." On 11 March, the PPCD announced a three-day suspension of the demonstrations. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT WORRIED ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS. European Popular Party (EPP) Chairman Wilfrid Martens said on 13 March that he is worried about human rights abuses in Moldova, the BBC reported. Martens said the Party of Moldovan Communists, although democratically elected, wants to impose a totalitarian regime. The EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, has proposed a draft resolution criticizing human rights abuses in Moldova that was to be discussed on 14 March. Swedish EPP Deputy Lennart Sacredius said that in the event that Moldovan authorities ignore the European Parliament's concerns, they will have to be warned that the European Union does not want Moldova to become "Europe's Zimbabwe." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

PROSECUTOR WANTS SUSPENDED JAIL SENTENCE FOR POLISH RADICAL FARMERS' LEADER. A prosecutor on 11 March demanded that an 18-month jail sentence to be suspended for four years for Andrzej Lepper, the head of the Self-Defense radical farmers' union, for organizing an illegal blockade of the border checkpoint in Swiecko in January 1999, PAP reported. A district court verdict was expected later in the week. ("RFE/RL Newsline" 12 March)

RULING PARTY, BUCHAREST MAYOR CLASH OVER KURDISH DEMONSTRATION. Ghiorghi Prisacaru, chairman of the Senate's Foreign Affairs Commission, on 17 March said a decision by Bucharest Mayor and Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu to authorize a 19 March demonstration by members of the 500-strong Romanian Kurdish minority in a Bucharest square endangers relations with Turkey and may negatively affect stability and Romania's NATO membership bid, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Basescu rejected the criticism, saying the authorities had not brought to his attention a decision taken two days earlier to prohibit a Kurdish automobile caravan traveling from Brussels to Turkey from entering Romanian territory on grounds that it would endanger national safety. The demonstrators and those traveling in the caravan are demanding free access to education in the Kurdish language for members of the minority in Turkey. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)

LABOR UNREST IN ROMANIA. The number of employees of the Slatina-based Rulmentul ball-bearing manufacturer who are on hunger strike has risen to 85, Romanian radio reported on 12 March. The previous day, 35 people joined the protest action started by 50 employees of the company last week. The protest is directed against planned layoffs of 600 out of the plant's 649 employees ahead of its privatization, for which no bids have yet been made. Meanwhile in Resita, Romanian radio reported that workers at the CSR steelmaker are marching on the town's water reservoir, with the intention of cutting supplies. The CSR workers are protesting having not received salaries for more than 300 days as the result of the still unresolved conflict with the U.S.-based Noble Ventures company, which owns the steelmaker. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

WORKERS CLASH WITH POLICE DURING PROTESTS. Police on 12 March blocked some 1,500 workers from the Resita CSR steelmaker who intended to cut off the town's water and electricity supplies in protest against their unsolved conflict with the U.S.-based Noble Ventures company, AP and Romanian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2002). Scuffles took place while demonstrators chanted antigovernment slogans. ("RFE/RL Newsline" 13 March)

ARBITRARY DETENTIONS. Russia's Constitutional Court on 14 March rejected a section of the country's new Criminal Code that would have allowed authorities to detain suspects for more than 48 hours without a court ruling, Russian and international news agencies reported. The legislation was scheduled to take effect on 1 July, but the court ordered the government "to immediately make changes" to the legislation, AP reported. The Russian parliament approved the new Criminal Code in January as part of sweeping plans to overhaul the country's Soviet-era legal system. The new code calls for jury trials to be introduced beginning on January 1, 2003, requires a court's sanction for arrests and searches, and sets age limits for judges. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

CITIZENS WANT ENVOYS TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT HOUSING, LAW ENFORCEMENT. The office of presidential envoy to the Urals federal district, Petr Latyshev, received more than 2,400 written and verbal appeals from Russian citizens during the first two months of 2002, while another 800 citizens showed up personally at Latyshev's headquarters in Yekaterinburg, reported on 11 March. According to the agency, most petitioners had questions about housing or the provision of public utilities, the work of local judicial or law enforcement bodies, the competence of local prosecutors, and the social needs of the population. In December, the office of presidential envoy to the Volga federal district, Sergei Kirienko, reported that he had received 5,843 written appeals since the office opened in July 2000. It also reported that more than one-fourth of the letters were about the works of the courts, prosecutors, and the police; and another 24 percent were about housing. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

PUTIN SAYS HE SUPPORTS ALTERNATIVE MILITARY SERVICE... President Vladimir Putin said on 13 March that he supports civilian alternatives to military service and shorter induction periods for conscripts, ITAR-TASS reported on 13 March. "Russia must have a choice, but no one has the right to speculate on this issue," Putin said. The president added, however, that until there is a law governing alternative military service, any "experimentation" on the issue is illegal. "As long as there is no law, everything that happens in this sphere is a violation of legislation" and must be considered by the Prosecutor-General's Office, Putin said. The Russian Constitution guarantees the option of alternative civilian service, but opposition by military brass and conservative lawmakers has stifled legislation on the matter. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

...AS HE SLAMS NIZHNII NOVGOROD'S EXPERIMENT. During his visit to "Izvestiya" on 13 March, President Putin criticized Nizhnii Novgorod's experimental program offering its young male citizens alternative military service. "Take this experiment in Nizhnii Novgorod," Putin said, "What's happening? It is politicization.... [m]ayoral elections are coming up soon there, and the mayor's popularity rating is negligible. He has no chance of being elected. That's why he is making political capital of this. It is absolutely impermissible." Nizhnii Novgorod Mayor Yurii Lebedev responded to Putin's comments by saying that he is ready to take personal responsibility for the city's "experiment." He said: "If today in the history of introducing alternative military service in Russia we need an extremist, then I am ready to be one. If only a federal law had been adopted [by now], then our children would have the opportunity to sign up for alternative military service," which is their right under the constitution. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March)

LUMINARIES URGE RETURN OF DEATH PENALTY... More than 100 prominent Russians, including world chess master Anatolii Karpov and Nobel Prize winning physicist Zhores Alfyorov, have called for Russia to restore the death penalty, DPA reported on 12 March. "Crime has assumed dimensions that endanger the very survival and existence of Russia," the group said in an open letter. In February, Russia's parliament passed a resolution calling for capital punishment, which was suspended in 1996 when Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe, to be restored. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

...AS PRESIDENT VOWS TO MAINTAIN EXECUTION BAN. President Putin said he has no plans to end Russia's moratorium on the death penalty, despite rising crime rates and public and parliamentary appeals, international news agencies reported. "Lifting the moratorium on the death penalty is foolish," Putin told journalists during a speech on 13 March at the Russian daily "Izvestiya," which was marking its 85th anniversary. Putin dismissed calls by politicians to restore the death penalty, saying raising the issue in such a way will boost some people's political ratings, "but it won't prevent crime," Interfax reported the same day. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS PROTEST CREEPING CATHOLICISM. Orthodox Christians in Novosibirsk protested what they consider an increasingly expansionist Vatican policy, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 March. The demonstration, attended by about 250 people, took place outside the cathedral in central Novosibirsk where the apostolic administration of Catholics of the Asian part of Russia is housed. The demonstrators said Orthodox Christians were insulted by the Vatican's decisions to change the church's structure in Russia from so-called "apostolic administrations" to full-fledged dioceses. The group also objected to Catholics proselytizing in Russia. Pope John Paul II led prayers in six cities, including Moscow, via a satellite television link-up on 2 March, a move Patriarch of All Russia and Moscow Aleksii II called an "invasion" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

LOCAL OFFICIALS TRY MILKING LIVESTOCK SITUATION TO TEACHERS' ADVANTAGE. Officials in the Berezovskii Raion in Krasnoyarsk Krai have come up with a new way to pay local teachers: Instead of wages they are given trade credits redeemable in cows, reported on 12 March citing Volga inform. According to the latest information, more than 30 teachers, most of whom work in agricultural areas, have signed up for the program. According to raion head Sergei Khrul, only cows, and not steers, are available. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

EDUCATION MINISTRY TO CLOSE SCHOOLS FOR LACK OF STUDENTS. The Ministry of Education plans to slash nearly 1 million places in elementary schools, reported on 13 March, citing The move is relate to the estimated drop in the Russian population from 145 million to 141 million by 2006, says the ministry. Meanwhile, enrollment is up in orphanages, boarding schools for children unable to live with parents, and institutions for disabled children, officials report. In response to changes in the economy, the ministry has increased the number of spaces available in special training institutes, particularly for business and technical courses, from 850,000 to 890,000. But slots in medical and teaching colleges had to be cut, as young people prefer to go to universities for such training. Some 16,000 additional university places will be made available next year for civil-servant training, including at a new Federal Tax Police Academy which plans to accept 450 students annually. The Ministry of Education has been forced to remove 200 slots from its doctoral programs, now down to only 1400 for all of Russia, because graduate students prefer to study abroad or go into business. CAF

EXTREMIST LASHES OUT AT ETHNIC HUNGARIANS. Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) Chairman Jan Slota said on 11 March that if he were premier he would "revive the Benes Decrees" and do his best to have those ethnic Hungarians who want ID cards under the provisions of the Status Law get "Hungarian passports" instead, forcing them to leave the country, CTK reported. Slota said Hungary is becoming "increasingly arrogant and impertinent" over the decrees and that President Rudolf Schuster and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan should demand that Budapest issue an official apology for the hundreds of years of the "assimilation genocide" carried out against Slovaks. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

DEFRAUDED CONSUMERS PROTEST LOSS OF SAVINGS IN PYRAMID SCHEMES. Several hundred people protested in Bratislava on 12 March against the government's decision the previous day not to compensate losses caused by the collapse of several unlicensed savings and loans companies, CTK reported. The protesters shouted antigovernment slogans. The parliament was to debate the affair on 12 March but failed to do so because of the SMK's refusal to vote for the agenda. The protesters accuse the government of having tolerated the operation of the collapsed companies and of not having informed investors that the companies were based on pyramid schemes. Slovak media reported that the far-right Slovak National Party was involved in organizing the protest demonstration. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March)

PUBLIC ACCORD AGREEMENT EXTENDED INDEFINITELY. At a session on 11 March, signatories to the 1996 Public Accord Agreement renewed that document indefinitely, and a representative of the former opposition Islamic Renaissance Party signed the accord for the first time, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 12 March. The accord was first signed on 9 March 1996 for a period of three years by pro-government political parties and NGOs in a show of support for the ongoing peace process. It was prolonged for a further three years in 1999. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

U.S. WANTS ASHGABAT ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS VIOLATORS LIST. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is recommending for the third year in a row that the United States place Turkmenistan on a list of the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom. RFE/RL's efforts today to reach Turkmen officials for comment on the USCIRF report were unsuccessful. However, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, speaking yesterday to his cabinet, seemed to respond to the report indirectly. He said Turkmenistan's controls on religious activity are aimed, not at anyone's right to practice religion, but at foreigners trying to spread what he called "alien" faiths. "Everyone can follow whatever faith he wants, but a foreigner has no right to spread an alien faith in our country. This is not freedom. Rather, this is inflicting harm upon our nation's religion." Niyazov told his ministers to use the country's laws to suppress specific denominations. ("Turkmenistan: Niyazov Defensive As U.S. Commission Condemns Religious Repression,", 15 March)

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL REJECTS MOTION TO INVESTIGATE KUCHMA... Mykhaylo Potebenko told journalists on 12 March that a recent parliamentary motion to launch a criminal investigation of President Leonid Kuchma in connection with his alleged assistance to former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko in planning the murders of two lawmakers is groundless, UNIAN reported. Potebenko also turned down the parliament's request to investigate commercial deals by presidential administration chief Volodymyr Lytvyn and State Tax Administration head Mykola Azarov. The prosecutor said the lawmakers' appeal was based on a forged letter, and vowed to investigate the letter's origin. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)

UZBEK, U.S. PRESIDENTS MEET. During a 45-minute meeting at the White House on 12 March, U.S. President George W. Bush assured Uzbek President Islam Karimov of his appreciation of Uzbekistan's support for the international antiterrorism coalition, which he said "opened a new chapter" in bilateral relations, Reuters reported. But at the same time, Bush stressed that Uzbekistan must implement further economic reforms, and he singled out improvements in human rights as crucial to "the future growth and strength of Uzbekistan and to U.S.-Uzbek relations." Also on 12 March, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov signed a declaration on strategic partnership and cooperation that encompasses not only political and economic but also military cooperation. Also signed were agreements on nuclear nonproliferation and on the allocation of a $55 million credit to small and medium enterprises in Uzbekistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March)


By Natalya Ablova

Villagers of the Aksyi District in Djalalabad Oblast traveled by bus, car, horse, and on foot to hear the verdict in the trial of Azimbek Beknazarov, a popular parliamentarian accused of dereliction of duty in a politically motivated case. Apparently when police blocked their way to the court in Toktogul on 17 March, protests which had remained peaceful for weeks turned violent and riot troops fired on a crowd of some 2,000 protestors, killing six. More than 60 people were wounded, reportedly many of them policemen. Officials immediately denounced the demonstrators, claiming they were "plotting to destabilize" Kyrgyzstan." Aside from this hysterical response, clearly the government simply miscalculated the potential backlash from people brought to the point of desperation from several official attempts to eliminate opponents through show trials. When Feliks Kulov, former vice president and opposition leader, was tried last year, many people remained patient and believed in an impartial justice system. It was risky for the government to mount a second such politically motivated case, especially since Beknazarov rose to public prominence by condemning Kyrgyzstan's concession of border territories to China �- a cause that would ensure any politician enormous popularity.

When passions flared after Beknazarov's arrest on 5 January on orders of the prosecutor in his own electoral district in Aksyi, in predictable fashion, the government chose to ignore completely the protesters' eminently moderate demand -- to free Beknazarov pending trial. Even when they encountered such stubborn refusal, the demonstrators still employed peaceful methods, organizing picket lines. But after a prosecutor refused to meet with the picketers, mass hunger strikes began �- and the mood turned harsh. Although past actions had not led to deaths -- officials had possessed sufficient flexibility and foresight to make some concessions -- on 7 February, Sherali Nazarkulov died while on a hunger strike. At first the tragedy was thought to have ushered in a reconciliation of sorts. The protests and fasts died down, and the government mistook this for a victory. Pro-government media displayed evident glee over the collapse of the hunger strikers' action.

The short-sighted efforts to quell dissent culminated in a clumsy propaganda campaign orchestrated by "Vechernii Bishkek" and KOORT, which hired unemployed people to stage a phony picket line defending a non-existent person, and then triumphantly served this up to concerned citizens to force them to the facile conclusion that everything can be bought and sold in our country, even dissatisfaction and protests. This was the beginning of a new era, when sophisticated media and political techniques were employed, replacing real news about real events with "cooked" news about pseudo-events. We have to suppose that correspondents from these media outlets believed that they were using a bold journalistic gimmick, although this method of "cooking" means that whoever orders the news will create the necessary spin. The result? First, the public was shown the method for how "news" could be concocted. Second, the point was driven home that influential people really could pay money for any type of protest action, from which it followed that all current and future protests were merely "commissioned." By ridiculing people's quite peaceful methods of demonstrating dissatisfaction, this type of media manipulation essentially pushed dissatisfied people into taking more radical actions.

The authorities had sufficient time �- two and a half months -� to try to reduce the growing tension. The issue was not merely about Beknazarov's arrest, but about public disenchantment after 10 years of "democratic reforms." Most people have come to live in greater poverty and with fewer rights than they had under the Communists. In such a climate, any small dispute is enough to push people to violence and disorder. And if in the last two months the government relied on only one option for dealing with disgruntled protestors �- refusing to talk honestly and relying on forceful suppression of demonstrations -- then we did not have to wait long for the results. Even if we can envisage some unknown political forces that were trying to exploit this situation and channel long-simmering dissatisfaction along a certain course, we did not see any evident efforts by the authorities to prevent this outcome. Official promises that all the culprits will be identified and punished cannot bring the dead back to life.

Some politicians and journalists have begun to compare the current crisis with the tragic Kyrgyz-Uzbek clash in Osh in 1990, which led to the loss of several hundred lives. At a press conference on 18 March, Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev called for remembering the lessons of Osh. But those events were related to a land dispute, which externally took the form of a bloody battle between two ethnic communities, suppressed with the help of army units. Back then, the soldiers managed to separate the opponents, but did not shoot at them -� fortunately it did not come to that.

Now we have a different kind of conflict, between the people and the state, which was caused by an unjust government decision, in the eyes of the people, and the stubborn refusal of the authorities to correct that injustice (Beknazarov's release on 19 March under a signed pledge not to flee is only a partial concession). Thank God, there is no ethnic element to this clash. Yet there is another dangerous element nonetheless -- without exhausting the options for negotiations, the government is using armed units not only to disperse rallies and picket lines, but also to shoot live ammunition at people. The government has not used this kind of "final argument" before.

On 18 March, the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, the Committee for Human Rights, and "Res Publica" met with Ali Mustafabeili, the political affairs officer at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Bishkek to discuss the crisis and propose measures to quell the conflict. At first, we were surprised by attempts to portray this meeting as between OSCE and the "opposition." After our protests and persistent requests to see us as what we are -- human rights advocates and the independent media -- a difficult discussion ensued about steps OSCE might take to influence the situation positively. We received a flat refusal to our request to be included in any OSCE monitoring group traveling to the region (we were told that the OSCE would not send such a group in any event because the security of its personnel could not be guaranteed). We then urged that the OSCE take the initiative to form a group of mediators �- neutral, respected persons from NGO or academic circles, for example. Someone should talk to the protestors and the government, we said, noting that state's continued reliance on forceful suppression of public discontent would fail. We recommended some possible mediators. In our view, the role of the OSCE should not only consist of obtaining explanations from the government, even if these explanations are treated critically and fleshed out by non-governmental reports.

Unfortunately, the current staff of the OSCE Center in Bishkek was selected for the type of work that could be expected in the routine conditions of a sleepy outpost in impoverished but tranquil Central Asia -- not for the kind of energetic work needed in a country undergoing a severe political crisis. The OSCE Center's distressed and defensive reaction to our demands for immediate action is an eloquent demonstration of this inadequacy.

Although the encounter was very difficult, at least we agreed to a regular change of information. Under these conditions, civil society in Kyrgyzstan must rely mainly on itself, and on support from colleagues and international public opinion.

(Natalya Ablova is director of the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This comment was translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.)