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Watch List: August 12, 1999

12 August 1999, Volume 1, Number 30

RUSSIA'S NEW PRIME MINISTER GETS MIXED REACTIONS. President Boris Yeltsin's replacement of Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin with Vladimir Putin on August 9 has drawn mixed reactions concerning the future of human rights in that country. Most commentators have expressed concern given Putin's long service in the KGB and more recently in the FSB. These fears were exacerbated by Yeltsin's own suggestion that he had selected Putin because of the latter's toughness. And Putin's first statements in office only reinforced these views among the human rights community. Putin's promise to quickly crush the revolt in Dagestan and his threat to jail "those who destabilize the situation" suggested that he may be prepared to launch a broader crackdown. But at least some human rights groups in the West saw reasons to hope. Howard Sachs, president of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, noted on August 10 that Putin "has been on good terms with the Jewish community." Sachs indicated that what matters in the near term is Putin's willingness to implement the "strong commitments" Stepashin made in his July 27 meeting with American Jewish leaders, commitments that included a condemnation of anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric as well as police protection for Jewish institutions in Russia.

HELSINKI FEDERATION CONDEMNS UZBEK CRACKDOWN. In a sharply worded July 29 open letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights noted "a marked increase in the repression of both new and traditional religious communities in Uzbekistan" which the IHF said has developed into "a general crackdown on political opposition, human rights activists, and everyone critical of the government." IHF said that Karimov's repressive acts were not justified "legally or morally" and in fact violated international norms to which Tashkent has committed itself. Countering Karimov's contention that he is only taking these steps to ensure stability, IHF warned that the crackdown is likely to have the opposite effect and "may provoke serious unrest." Calling the trials "not fair," IHF deplored the death sentences pronounced on six suspects in connection with the February 16 bombings and the 10-to-20 year jail sentences handed out to 16 others.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FINDS TORTURE WIDESPREAD IN AZERBAIJAN. In a 57-page report released on August 5 entitled "Azerbaijan: Impunity for Torture," the New York-based Human Rights Watch concludes that torture and physical abuse remain "widespread and systematic" in Azerbaijan. The report details how the Ministry of Internal Affairs keeps detainees in isolation from the outside world, "allowing torture to take place in virtual secrecy." Prior to trial, detainees "do not have even minimal access to the courts to review the grounds of their detention or complain about their treatment." The procuracy has "broad and vague powers to extend the length of detentions indefinitely" which allows signs of torture to heal while detainees are "warehoused in overcrowded pre-trial prisons known as 'investigative isolators.'" The report suggests that the level of corruption and abuse in Azerbaijan "should be a cause of concern to any investor and policymaker."

UKRAINE'S CLOSURE OF TV STATIONS SPARKS PROTESTS. In a letter dated August 6 to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists protests the recent shutdown of four independent television stations on the Crimean peninsula. The letter dismissed Kyiv's explanation that the Crimean Radio and Television Broadcasting Center had allocated frequencies in Crimea without proper authorization. CPJ points out that government-run stations continue to broadcast, even though their licenses are the same as those of the independents. And it charges that the shutdown of the independents is a politically motivated effort "to control the airwaves in the months preceding the October 31 presidential election."

ST. PETERSBURG TV TO BE SUED FOR ANTI-SEMITISM. The Russian human rights group Citizens' Watch will sue St. Petersburg Television, the city's main TV station, for anti-Semitic program content, according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) report of August 8. According to JTA, recent programs featured the guest appearance of Nikolai Bondarik, a leader of the blatantly anti-Semitic Russian Party, who called for "ethnic purges." Recently, the station hosted a series in which viewers took part in call-in polls answering questions such as: Should ethnic purges be carried out in St. Petersburg, and whether in the event of a pogrom viewers would join the attackers or defend the victims. In one poll, 58 percent of 2,295 callers said they would join the attackers. The station's majority shareholder is the city government. Inciting national, racial, or religious hatred is a criminal offense in Russia.

RUSSIAN MEDIA MOGUL ESCAPES ASSASSINATION. On August 3, the Yekaterinburg apartment belonging to the president of one of Russia's largest media conglomerates was blown up, according to NTV. But Igor Mishin and his family happened to be out of town and so were unhurt. Police discovered that the bathroom's sewage system had been filled with gasoline and set on fire. According NTV, Mishin was the subject of this attack because he has insisted on remaining neutral in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Sverdlovsk Oblast.

MASS GRAVE FROM 1995 FOUND IN BOSNIA. Forensic experts have exhumed about 250 bodies from a mass grave in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, UN officials informed the press on August 10. The bodies are part of the 2,000 found so far of the 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men believed to have been executed by Bosnian Serb forces that overran Srebrenica in 1995.

CHINESE OPPOSITION LEADER SEEKS U.S. ASYLUM. A founder of the banned Chinese Democracy Party, Xie Wanjun, arrived in the United States last week from Russia where he had escaped three months ago, AFP reported. Xie, 32, organized that opposition party in his home province of Shandong and was placed under house arrest there. But he managed to flee to Vladivostok where he sought asylum at the U.S. Consulate. Pressured by China, which blocked its tourists from entering Russia, Moscow would not let him leave for the U.S. at first. According to AFP, the UN High Commission for Refugees intervened and secured his departure.


By Charles Fenyvesi

American Roma and Jewish communal leaders joined in commemorating the Roma Holocaust last week in New York. In one event, held on August 5 in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, George Kaslov of the Lawyers' Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition explained that remembering the Roma Holocaust, known in the Romany language as "Porraimosh" or "the Devouring," is a recent development. "This is only the second year we hold such a gathering," he said. "But now we know that we must remember."

Even though Nazis killed an estimated half a million to one million Roma, or about half of the community scattered across Europe and then called Gypsy, the Roma tradition of not dwelling on past misfortune discouraged any mention of the tragedy. Kaslov recalled that as a small child growing up in Chicago, he saw his grandmother, who had immigrated from Romania, often sitting alone, crying. He asked her the reason, but she would not explain. "Never ask," she said. Every time he asked, he was rebuffed. "Do not ask," his grandmother repeated. "Never ask. Never."

"But now I know the reason," Kaslov said. "My grandmother was thinking of her brother and other family members who were killed by the Nazis or by their Romanian allies."

Kaslov's grandmother died without ever telling him anything about the way members of her family died and the indignities they suffered in Europe.

At this year's commemoration, Kaslov told the story how many years later, he learned from a friend, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, that the Nazis had also killed Roma whom they also regarded as racially inferior. His Jewish friend had been a prisoner in Auschwitz, and next to his barracks was another, isolated by an electric fence, where only Roma were held. Unlike the Jews who were separated from the beginning--with the old and the young killed right away--and able-bodied men and women held in different barracks, Roma families were allowed to stay together.

On the basis of eyewitness accounts, now the world knows that up to 4,000 Roma prisoners--from newborn infant to grandparents--were marched into gas chambers on the night of August 4, 1944. When their neighbors woke the next morning, there was not a sound coming from the usually noisy Gypsy camp.

"My people do not like to remember terrible things," Kaslov said. "But not remembering is not the right way. We have learned that we must remember. If we do not ask, we do not know, and if we do not know, we do not remember. We must ask, and we must remember."

Kaslov also spoke of the present. "Roma are still being killed in Europe," he said. He cited the tragedy of hundreds of Kosova Roma hunted down and shot by both Serbs and Albanians, and others expelled from their homes. He mentioned the rise of hate crimes, and he cited the Czech Republic where he said 40 Roma have been killed since the Velvet Revolution. He decried the resurgence of skinhead violence directed against the Roma and condemned the lack of official severity in persecuting and punishing those guilty of hate crimes.

"But we are stronger now that we have learned to remember," Kaslov said. "The names of our dead will no longer be forgotten."