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Watch List: September 2, 1999


2 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 33

GEORGIA SHIFTS BURDEN OF PROOF IN LIBEL CASES. In a move with far-reaching consequences for freedom of the press, Georgia is revising its legal code so as to make it easier to investigative journalists to do their work by limiting the ability of officials to rein them in via libel charges. Georgian investigative journalist George Targamadze of Tbilisi's Liberty Institute told RFE/RL that so far this year journalists in his country have faced about 20 libel cases, and the plaintiff, almost always a government official or institution, won in almost 70 percent of them. But he said, the balance is now shifting in favor of the journalists, following the creation of new criteria for libel.Until recently, the burden of proof lay with the journalists, but now government officials must prove not only that the reports are false but malicious as well. At the same RFE/RL press breakfast, Supreme Court Justice Nougzar Skhirtladze voiced approval of the reform, but he cautioned that if this reform is to work, the news media must develop "self-regulating agencies."

VOLGOGRAD INTERNET PROVIDER CHALLENGES FSB. For several months Volgograd Internet provider Bayard-Slavia Communications (BSC) has rejected the demand of the regional Federal Security Service (FSB) to monitor, with a device known as SORM, BSC customers' use of the Web and to read their e-mail, according to Ivan Kurilla reporting from Volgograd for the EastWest Institute (see "RFE/RL Watchlist" End Note, "Russian FSB Surveillance of Internet Challenged," on 25 February.) BSC directors Oleg Syrov and Nail Murzakhanov say that they are willing to accept SORM, but only if a court orders them to do so. In the meantime, the FSB is pressuring BSC. On 19 May, Kurilla's report says, BSC was cut off from the satellite channel providing customers access to the Web. On 20 July BSC appealed to regional procurator Valerii Shestopalov and is waiting for a response.

MOSCOW DAILY SUES FIREFIGHTERS. On 23 August, Moscow's "Kommersant" filed a lawsuit to recover losses it incurred when city firemen raided its offices and forced it to miss one edition because of alleged infractions of the fire code, according to ITAR-TASS. "Kommersant" said it was told it had too few fire extinguishers and lacked signs marking no-smoking areas. The widely-respected newspaper accused Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who is expected to run for president next year, as the man behind the raid. Russia's Ministry for Press, Television, and Radio Broadcasting seems to side with "Kommersant," whose owner, business tycoon Boris Berezovskii, is close to President Boris Yeltsin. The ministry issued a statement calling on city authorities to "cancel the decision of the fire service to seal the building of the editorial offices of 'Kommersant.'" City and fire service officials deny having political motives and charge "Kommersant" with "the most serious breaches of fire regulations."

PUTIN PROMOTES MEDIA DIRECTOR TO DEPUTY PREMIER. On 26 August, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appointed Mikhail Seslavinskii, director of the Service for Television and Radio Broadcasting and the country's newest ministry, as first deputy prime minister for the press, television, and radio broadcasting. Only a few days earlier, Seslavinskii made headlines by banning television interviews with "gang leaders" from the Caucasus. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has received no response to its letter to Seslavinskii, calling for the immediate cancelation of that ban which it condemned as "censorship."

PRESS MINISTRY THREATENS TO STRIP TV STATION'S LICENSE. On 30 August, the press ministry warned ORT television that it could lose its broadcasting license for abusing "the freedom of the mass media," ITAR-TASS reported. Minister Mikhail Lesin's warning follows ORT's airing footage of a mass demonstration in St. Petersburg by supporters of the reformist Right Cause bloc. Insisting that his action was not censorship, Lesin argued that ORT violated both mass media and elections law. What puzzles some observers is that ORT's owner is Yeltsin ally Boris Berezovskii.

KYIV TV STATION THREATENED WITH SHUTDOWN. Kyiv's STB TV is suing Ukraine's tax administration and the commission on communications frequencies for freezing the channel's bank accounts, company director Dmytro Prykordonnyi told a press conference on 27 August, according to Infobank News Agency. Prykordonnyi charged that nine government agencies are now investigating the channel and that the investigation is politically motivated, as the channel provides "objective coverage" of the current presidential race. With its bank accounts frozen, the director explained, the channel will not be able to pay the fees for transmitter services, which in turn will lead to a shutdown.

U.S. GROUP PROTESTS HARASSMENT OF KYRGYZ PUBLISHER. The Committee to Protect Journalists has written to Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev to protest the harassment by the State Tax Police of Aleksandr Kim, owner and chief editor of the independent daily "Vechernii Bishkek," RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 28 August, citing the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights. The State Tax police opened a criminal case against Kim.

ALBANIAN COMMITTEE CONDEMNS ATTACKS ON CHURCHES. The Albanian Helsinki Committee has condemned vandalism targeting the country's Orthodox churches and monasteries, and expressed its outrage over the recent rise of attacks. Originally dismissed as isolated incidents caused by irresponsible people, the acts of vandalism, numbering about ten cases in the past two years, are now seen by the committee as constituting "an open attack" on the constitutional principles of the freedom of religion and the equality of religious belief. The statement concludes that following "the old, civilized tradition of religious tolerance" in Albania is a citizen's "moral obligation."

BOSNIAN SERB GENERAL PLEADS NOT GUILTY. The highest-ranking Bosnian Serb military officer in the custody of the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Gen. Momir Talic, pleaded not guilty to charges of genocide in the ethnic cleansing campaign of about 100,000 non-Serbs in Bosnia in 1992. In March the Hague court had secretly indicted Talic who was arrested on 25 August while attending an international conference in Vienna as the Republika Srpska's army chief-of-staff. In a separate development, Hague court officials denied persistent reports that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is also on the secret list of former Yugoslav citizens indicted for war crimes.

PERMIT TO BUILD WALL TO SEPARATE ROMA CANCELED. Hours before construction was to begin, on 30 August, Czech authorities halted the building of a 6-foot high wall designed to separate Roma families from other residents of the town of Usti nad Labem, Prague television reported. An official from Nestemice District told Czech television that the construction permit was canceled because the wall would have violated laws including environmental and human rights statutes. The plan for the wall has drawn strong protests from President Vaclav Havel and members of the Czech cabinet, as well as the European Union and the U.S. Congress. But on 1 September, Usti's City Hall called the district office's cancelation "invalid."

END NOTE: TWO TRIALS TEST INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY OF LITHUANIA'S COURTS

By Asta Banionis

Two high-profile trials progressing through Lithuania�s nine-year-old courts are testing the degree to which that country's prosecutors and judiciary have recovered their integrity following the end of Soviet occupation. The first case is one brought by prosecutors against five former local Soviet government officials, members of the Communist Party (CPSU), in the district of Salcininkai, Lithuania. The charge against them is sedition, and the time their activities took place was between 1990 and 1991. On 2 April 1999, the district court of first instance in the Vilnius region pronounced them guilty and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from five months to one and a half year.

The convictions were based on the following evidence. As local government officials of a poor, rural county inhabited by a mix of ethnic Poles, Belarusians, Russians, and Lithuanians, the accused had issued a declaration of local autonomy and pledged allegiance to Soviet authorities in Moscow in November 1990, eight months after the Lithuanian parliament had issued its 11 March declaration of the restoration of Lithuania's independence. The district court also found them guilty of collaborating with Soviet security agents in staging demonstrations against the Lithuanian state and encouraging young men to enter the Soviet Army when Lithuanians in general were actively resisting the Soviet draft.

Both the defense and prosecution chose to appeal the district court's decision. The defense contended that the defendants had remained �loyal to Lithuania's interests, while the prosecution complained that the sentences were too lenient. On 17 August the appeals court issued its findings reaffirming the original guilty verdict, but increasing the sentences, doubling the prison terms for all five defendants. The Criminal Code of Lithuania provides a prison sentence of up to ten years for "activities aimed at weakening or subverting the Lithuanian State."

As a result, the Lithuanian judicial system now finds itself forced to cope with a case that has generated political controversy. Some members of the Polish parliament are demanding a review of Polish-Lithuanian relations because of these verdicts, even intimating that Poland will withdraw its support for Lithuania's NATO and EU membership bids. Other Polish officals are trying to cool the public dialogue in Poland by supporting Lithuania's right to make the indictment and the court's independence in rendering a guilty verdict. Looking for a political compromise, a group of Polish intellectuals appealed directly to Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus to issue a pardon, noting that, "It is our deepest conviction that Lithuania is able to make a generous gesture toward the persons who--regardless of their past culpability--in no way threaten its independence or territorial integrity any longer." The case is proceeding on appeal to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.

The case has thus become a test of the strength and integrity of Lithuania's judicial system and governmental institutions. It is also a test for Poland's young democracy. Polish Senator Anna Bogucka-Skowronska, who observed the proceedings of the appeals court, has charged that, �the verdict is a hostile act toward Poles living in Lithuania, it is a distinct signal that the state looks unfavorably at their national aspirations." This conclusion seems illogical since the defendants never appealed to, nor pledged loyalty to, neighboring Poland. Their decree expressed their support for the authorities in Moscow and their desire to be part of the Soviet Union.

Likewise, the Polish senators' claim that the the defendants have been loyal to Lithuania for nine years must be evaluated in light of the defendants' willingness to risk the safety and lives of Salcininkai residents. One of the demonstrations they helped organize along with Soviet security agents involved about 4,000 people who were bused into Vilnius on 7 January 1991 from Salcininkai and other areas to demonstrate outside the parliament building against the decision to remove subsidies on basic food items. The demonstrators stormed the parliament at one point and had to be driven out by water cannon.

The second politically sensitive case is even more clear cut. In it, the six defendants were high-profile actors in the drama that unfolded as Lithuania moved to restore its independence in 1990-1991. Two of them have been in jail since January 1994 awaiting trial. They had fled to Russia and then Belarus and were returned by Lithuanian officials with the agreement of Belarusian authorities. All six were charged with sedition, and the bill of indictment, complete with evidence, now fills 332 volumes.

On 26 August, a Vilnius city district court found these six high ranking former Communist Party officials guilty of organizing and carrying out the attempted coup against the Lithuanian government on 12-13 January 1991. During that attempt, Soviet forces killed 14 and injured more than 1,000. The sentences ranged from 12 years for Mykolas Burokevicius, chairman of the Communist Party in Lithuania who still considers himself a citizen of the USSR, to three years for Leonas Bartosevicius, a former Soviet publishing house director. The prosecutors had recommended stiffer sentences, but the court took into account the old age and poor health of five of the defendants and shortened their sentences. Defense attorneys have vowed that they will appeal the convictions. Five are now in custody at Lukiskes prison. A sixth defendant, Jaroslavas Prokopovicius, a senior inspector for the former Soviet Interior Ministry, appears to have fled the country. Still awaiting trial are 41 others, who are believed to be in Russia or one of the other post-Soviet states.

Through its diplomats in Vilnius, the Russian Foreign Ministry attempted to intervene during the final week of the trial, and the verdict might have been delayed by at least one day as a result. Russian diplomats had publicly warned that "assigning stern sentences could mar bilateral relations." But the Russian government has not taken any action beyond this statement.

And consequently, in these two cases, the Lithuanian court system has demonstrated its integrity, something it was famous for before the Soviet occupation but which it has had to rebuild over the last decade.

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