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Watch List: June 10, 1999


10 June 1999, Volume 1, Number 22

FULL SETTLEMENT WITH BELGRADE TO FOCUS ON MINORITY RIGHTS. Officials from NATO countries have told RFE/RL that once the Yugoslav military evacuates Kosova, the next stage in the negotiations will be a comprehensive settlement with Yugoslavia in which the West will insist on full compliance with international human rights conventions, especially in the area of minority rights. Moreover, the West will insist that Belgrade live up to these standards across the country. Vojvodina, the once autonomous Serbian province with 16 ethnic groups, they said, will be singled out for particular insistence on this point. Western delay in making public statements on the issue so far has to do with the uncertainty about the shape of the next government in Belgrade. In the American assessment, the odds are just about equal for either the ultranationalist right or the anti-Milosevic democrats gaining the upper hand in post-Milosevic Serbia.

RIGHTS GROUPS SAY KOSOVA PEACE ACCORD IGNORES HUMAN RIGHTS. Human Rights groups were less than wholehearted in welcoming the peace accord announced by NATO and Yugoslavia on June 4. Within hours of the announcement, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reacted by protesting that the agreement failed to address itself to the long-term protection of human rights of all ethnic groups in Kosova and to the arrest of those responsible for war crimes. "The human rights violations that have taken place in Kosova during the past 10 years might have been prevented if effective steps had been taken," AI Secretary General Pierre Sane said. "Amnesty International fears for any civilian returning in the immediate aftermath of an armed conflict where they may face deprivations and dangers, such as booby-traps, minefields, and further killings and 'disappearances.'" He called for "unhindered access" for independent human rights monitors to all parts of Kosova and Yugoslavia. Citing the experience of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Holly Cartner of Human Rights Watch warned that "withdrawing troops often use the closing days of war to exact revenge and express their frustration through brutal attacks on civilians."

KOSOVO PRISONERS BEATEN AND TORTURED. Veteran journalist Cerkin Ibishi is among the hundreds of Kosovo Albanians released from Kosova's Smerkovnica prison between the end of May and the beginning of June, Human Rights Watch reports on June 7. Like Ibisi, the men, now in Albania, show signs of physical abuse and torture.

EU URGED TO LEAD BALKAN RECONSTRUCTION. A position paper by European experts released in the first days of June urges the European Union to take the lead in postwar Balkan reconstruction by integrating the region in "the European civil order." Published by the Center for European Policy Studies, the paper also recommends giving Balkan nations "associate member" status in the EU, provided that they comply with international conventions on human and minority rights.

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES LAW AGAINST KGB FRONTS. On June 8, Lithuania's parliament voted 63 to 11 for legislation to outlaw organizations and businesses that serve as fronts for foreign intelligence services, according to the Baltic News Service. The law also stipulates that the heads of organizations and businesses that worked for Soviet intelligence must report to the State Security Department. If a court finds that a business or organization is a "front," the law calls for its liquidation. Observers expect that the Constitutional Court will be asked to examine the law.

ARMENIAN JOURNALISTS RESIST ATTEMPT TO SHUT DOWN PAPER. A brawl broke out at the editorial office of the independent newspaper "Oragir" last week when justice ministry officials attempted to confiscate its property in lieu of $25,000 in compensatory damages imposed on the daily by a Yerevan court last April, RFE/RL reports. The court ruled that "Oragir" inflicted financial and moral damages to Mika Armenia trade company by repeatedly implicating it in questionable connections with Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The paper refused to pay, calling the verdict "illegal and unconstitutional." The brawl stopped after law-enforcement officials were told that the bulk of the paper's equipment is leased.

NEW RUSSIAN PREMIER CALLS FOR RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE. At a June 3 news conference Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin called for religious tolerance in Russia and acknowledged that he would have acted differently during the Chechnya war if at the time of the conflict he had had a better understanding of Islamic tradition, according to a Reuters report. "We have many faiths--not only Christians but also Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews," he said. "They are also our roots, our Russia." Known as a hardliner, Stepashin was a top security officer in 1994 when President Boris Yeltsin sent troops to the mostly Muslim region. In 1995 Stepashin resigned following a botched operation to free hostages.

TIANANMEN REMEMBERED. On June 4, the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, thousands attended a candlelight vigil in central Hong Kong in what organizers said was the highest turnout since 1992, Reuters reports. But in Beijing, what Reuters called a "heavy security presence" prevented any commemoration. Police promptly arrested one young man who scattered leaflets calling for democracy and hours later a second man who opened a white umbrella with characters painted on it, urging the government to remember the student movement of 1989. Near the Chinese embassy in Ulan Bator, a handful of Mongolians demonstrated, demanding that Beijing release all jailed human rights activists and give freedom to Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The protesters also burned a Chinese flag. In its dispatch from Hong Kong, Reuters quoted a tourist from eastern China: "I'm lucky to be in the only place in China where we can openly remember."

**UPDATE** The Pacific Fleet military court postponed the in-camera trial of journalist Grigorii Pasko, who stands accused of espionage, according to a report on Moscow's NTV June 4. A former naval captain, Pasko has been under detention since November 1997, after he revealed on Japanese TV the illegal dumping of toxic waste by Russia's Pacific Fleet (see "RFE/RL Watchlist" April 15 and April 29, 1999). According to NTV's Vladivostok correspondent Ilya Zimin, the court questioned the authenticity of the record of the search of Pasko's apartment and ordered a new expert examination. Zimin's sources say that the court's action is based on suspicions that those conducting the search planted incriminating material in what they confiscated and that the search record might have been altered post facto.

END NOTE: DESPITE YELTSIN ACTION, RUSSIA STILL HAS DEATH PENALTY By Charles Fenyvesi On June 3 President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree commuting the sentence of the last remaining prisoner on Russia's death row, the Russian government announced. In the preceding months, Yeltsin had commuted 716 death sentences, according to statistics gathered by Amnesty International.

"We applaud the step taken by President Yeltsin," Sam Jordan of Amnesty International told RFE/RL. "But we are concerned that the Russian judiciary and the Duma still have not acted on a specific law to eliminate the death penalty. We also think that Yeltsin triggered the growth of [the] death penalty by his campaign to get tough on crime." Jordan, AI's specialist in the death penalty issue, argues that Yeltsin's action is insufficient. "The Russian parliament must repeal the death penalty," Jordan says, "so when Yeltsin steps down his successor will be bound by the law."

But experts agree that the current Duma is firmly opposed to the abolition of the death penalty, which in turn reflects popular opinion. In January this year the daily "Izvestiya" reported a poll showing that 50 percent of Russians favor keeping the death penalty in its current form and 22 percent would like to see its use extended. The paper adds that in 1994 only 37 percent favored the death penalty. According to a poll of Moscow residents published on April 26 by Interfax, a stunningly low 2 percent of the people interviewed thought that the abolition of the death penalty was a good idea.

Reflecting these attitudes, Aleksandr Lebed, now governor of Krasnoyarsk, recently called for the repeal of the current moratorium on the death penalty. He argued that abolishing capital punishment in the current crime wave would be the equivalent of banning a vaccine during an epidemic.

In Jordan's opinion, the issue needs to be depoliticized. "The crime problem requires a lot more serious attention in Russia," he says.

"The death penalty cannot be abolished by presidential decree alone," says Peter Roudik, a specialist in East European law at the U.S. Library of Congress. "Such a major change requires some kind of administrative action. Then people might swallow it."

Yeltsin's use of executive privilege in commuting death sentences is a temporary measure to deal with a glaring instance of Russia's noncompliance with international obligations. The problem dates back to February 1996 when Russia joined the Council of Europe. Conditions of membership included two key promises by Russia: to impose an immediate moratorium on executions and to agree to the abolishment of the death penalty by signing Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which was to be ratified within three years.

But, according to the Moscow Office of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Russia failed to introduce the moratorium until August 1996, and it executed a total of 53 prisoners between January and August that year. The figure for executions in 1995 was 86, up from 19 in 1994 and 4 in 1993.

In its report, HRW characterized the August 1996 Yeltsin ukaz (or decree) as "an informal moratorium." It consisted of his instruction to all prison directors that they do not to carry out any more death sentences. However, HRW noted, courts continued to pass down death sentences and the number of death row prisoners grew steadily. "In some prisons, there is insufficient room on death row," the HRW statement adds, "and death row prisoners are placed in punishment cells." In April 1997, Russia signed Protocol 6. But the Duma has not ratified the protocol to this day, and thus it has no legal force. The following month, the Duma rejected a draft law introducing a formal moratorium on executions. A year later the Duma refused even to consider a draft law on a moratorium and dropped the issue from its agenda.

In February 1999, Russia missed the Council of Europe deadline for ratifying Protocol 6 and for amending the criminal code and other legislation to abolish the death penalty.

But that same month the Constitutional Court, which often takes its cue from Yeltsin, decided on a significant step by prohibiting death sentences until jury trials are introduced throughout the country.

According to Roudik of the Library of Congress, so far only 10 of Russia's 89 provinces have introduced a jury trial, and lack of funds argues against a further spread of the jury system in the foreseeable future. Many experts think that the nationwide adoption of jury trials may take another century. Thus, in effect, the Constitutional Court's ruling is a moratorium on the death penalty. However, Roudik cautions, it is not clear what will happen when a jury does pass a death sentence.

The paradox, neatly balanced in HRW's Moscow report, is that though the use of the death penalty is now blocked and death rows have been cleared, "the prospects for full abolishment of the death penalty remain dim."

On the basis of statistics and articles in Russian periodicals, Roudik questions whether Yeltsin has indeed commuted the death sentence of everyone on death row. As recently as in April, Roudik says, Deputy Minister of Justice Kalinin spoke of more than 1,000 prisoners awaiting executions. "There are probably a few more prisoners, forgotten by the presidential office, whose death sentences still stand," he says. "But under Yeltsin's decree they will not be executed."

AI's Jordan is distraught. "Protocol 6 is very important," he says. "It represents the commitment of a nation to maintain a thorough review of human rights and to continue to search for more humane methods to deal with crime. When you have the death penalty, there is no pressure to cast the criminal justice system in a humanitarian framework. If there is a death penalty, there is a tendency to violate other human rights as well."

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