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Analysis: Russia's Ombudsman Speaks Out

When Vladimir Lukin was confirmed as Russia's human rights ombudsman in February, activists were cautiously optimistic.

As a co-founder and co-leader of the oppositionist Yabloko party, Lukin's liberal credentials were clearly satisfactory, but as a former ambassador to the United States, Lukin had a reputation for diplomatic finesse that was somewhat less encouraging. However, in recent weeks, after three months on the job, the new ombudsman has taken on some of the country's most powerful interests -- the Interior Ministry, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Kremlin, and even President Vladimir Putin -- in a startlingly energetic and aggressive manner.

The skeptics seemed to be vindicated in April when Lukin held a cozy meeting with Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, after which Lukin took pains to minimize the significance of the fact that nearly half of all complaints to his office are directed against the police. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Lukin as saying that Nurgaliev is aware of the figures and that during the meeting he "justly noted that the ministry must not be judged just by scandalous facts and phenomena." Lukin emphasized that the ministry had had "both negative and positive results" and lauded Nurgaliev's willingness to cooperate with the ombudsman's office. "Law enforcement organs must precisely know and observe human rights, but citizens must know and observe the rights and obligations of the law enforcement organs," Lukin said, seeming to justify some of the ministry's alleged human rights violations.
"Two things are capable of influencing the situation in this country: force and authority." -- Lukin

On 16 June, however, Lukin returned with a vengeance to the theme of human rights violations allegedly committed by police. At a press conference called to present the results of his first three months in office, Lukin repeated that "the most important and urgent questions are the state of human rights in the law enforcement agencies," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 17 June in an article titled "Lukin Becomes A Dissident." He offered a laundry list of complaints, including allegations of torture, beatings, unlawful detentions, planting evidence, and illegal searches. "The most impermissible means of influence are used in temporary holding cells and police offices," he said.

He described a woman in the Leningrad Oblast town of Gatchina who alleged that she was tortured by being forced to don a gasmask that had been sealed off with tape. Another woman in Moscow Oblast said that she had been subjected to electric shock, and a resident of Vladimir Oblast was tied to a bench and beaten until he bled from his ears, Lukin said, according to "Novye izvestiya."

Lukin followed a similar pattern in his dealings with the Justice Ministry's Main Corrections Department regarding prison conditions. In the spring, a wave of hunger strikes rolled through the penal system, and were particularly widespread in Leningrad Oblast, where more than 5,000 prisoners were striking at one point. Lukin investigated and found a "well-developed system of extortion to get food, money, and valuables from prisoners and their families," "Novye izvestiya" reported on 6 April. He said some prisoners, with the knowledge and support of the guards, were extorting other prisoners using threats of beatings. Although Lukin charged local penal authorities with trying to cover up the reasons for the hunger strike and with denying prisoners access to human rights organizations, his accusations were low-key and barely attracted the notice of the national media.

However, Lukin went public in a forceful way in May when it appeared that the Main Corrections Department was continuing the cover-up and even going after the NGOs that were making more and more allegations. In May, a group of activists in the Adygeya Republic was detained while trying to verify reports of prisoner abuse, and the Justice Department accused them of accepting money from criminal groups and working on their behalf. A few days earlier, Main Corrections Department Deputy Director Vladimir Kraev made similar unsubstantiated allegations. Lukin responded boldly in both cases, stating publicly that he would personally be monitoring the case of the Adygeya activists. On 24 May, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Lukin said that Kraev's comments were an inappropriate response to allegations of poor prison conditions and that "his job is not to make declarations but to keep his own house in order." Lukin discussed the matter with Justice Minister Yurii Chaika.

In recent days, Lukin has also been in the press constantly with his opposition to the controversial government-backed bills on conducting referendums and on public demonstrations. Lukin participated in several demonstrations against the referendums bill and told activists in St. Petersburg on 12 June that he had submitted several amendments to the bill, reported. However, the Duma adopted the bill after rejecting all 173 amendments proposed. As ombudsman, Lukin could present his objections to Putin in a bid to persuade him not to sign the bill into law.

Lukin also recently promised to look into charges that the FSB had prevented scholars from entering the closed Chelyabinsk Oblast city of Ozersk, reported on 10 June. The scholars had been invited to conduct sociological research, and the NGO that sponsored them reported that an FSB official had informed them that they would be arrested if they attempted to enter the city and possibly charged with espionage. The FSB official was aware that the NGO received grant funding from a U.S. foundation and mentioned the case of researcher Igor Sutyagin, who was convicted in April of spying in connection with research he did for a U.S. organization. Lukin reportedly said that he would travel to Ozersk himself to look into the matter.

Lukin also recently helped organize a group of Moscow residents who are concerned about uncontrolled construction in the capital and forced Moscow Mayor Luzhkov to meet with them. Lukin's involvement in this matter was also widely reported in the national media, and marked the ombudsman's first open collaboration with his old Yabloko colleagues.

It is possible that Lukin has earned the right to pursue these matters aggressively by carrying water for the Kremlin in the international arena. Lukin has routinely responded diplomatically to periodic Western accusations of human rights abuses in Chechnya. "I cannot concentrate all of my attention exclusively on Chechnya," Lukin told the Spanish daily "La Vanguardia" on 2 June. In the same interview, he responded to a U.S. State Department report on human rights in Russia by sarcastically saying, "Washington's statements on the failure to observe human rights in any country look simply comical these days." Lukin has also spoken out repeatedly in defense of Russian speakers in Turkmenistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union, a subject that is close to the heart of the presidential administration.

In the "La Vanguardia" interview, Lukin also described the meeting with Putin at which they first discussed his candidacy as ombudsman. "[Putin] told me that his experience in the area of human rights was limited, since he had worked where he worked for so many years," apparently a reference to Putin's KGB and FSB background. The mounting evidence from Lukin's recent performance as ombudsman seems to indicate that the president has chosen the right person to make up for this shortcoming. As Lukin said in an interview with RFE/RL in March, shortly after his confirmation: "Two things are capable of influencing the situation in this country: force and authority. It is true that the human rights ombudsman has practically no force at his disposal. But if he has authority, then he can achieve a lot."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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