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Russia: UN Human Rights Chief Senses 'Climate Of Fear' In Chechnya

Arbour meeting with representatives of the Memorial human rights group in Nazran on 20 February (RFE/RL) Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has spent this past week on a tour of Russia's North Caucasus region, making stops in Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Beslan, North Ossetia -- site of the 2004 school hostage crisis. Speaking today in Moscow, Arbour said her discussions touched on a "multitude" of human rights issues like forced migration, torture, and the pervasive "climate of fear" prevailing in the region, particularly in war-torn Chechnya.

PRAGUE, 24 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Arbour's remarks come at the end of a rare tour by a high-level Western official of Russia's troubled southern republics.

She gave measured praise to small signs of improvement in the region. But she said "very serious shortcomings" remain.

Arbour began her tour in Ingushetia, where she met local officials and visited a camp for Ingush displaced by a 1992 ethnic conflict in neighboring North Ossetia.

Speaking today, she said the theme of migration and forced displacement was a constant current during her time in the fractious region.

Intimidation And Torture In Chechnya

She also focused on Chechnya, the source of the greatest agitation for Western critics of Russia's human rights record. "I stressed to Chechen officials that citizens of that republic have friends all over the world who support their desire to live in peace -- and in particular, their desire to live in a society governed by the rule of law. I noted the welcome beginning of a physical reconstruction that appears to be under way, particularly in Grozny."

Arbour followed her North Caucasus tour with talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader reportedly called on Arbour to refrain from politicizing human rights, saying Moscow was committed to working together with international organizations on rights issues.

But Arbour said rights abuses remain rampant in Chechnya, and suggested the republic's pro-Kremlin government has a vested interest in maintaining, in her words, "a society ruled by force."

"Two phenomena, in my view, are particularly disturbing," Arbour said. "One is the prevalence of the use of torture to extract confessions and information. And the second one is the intimidation of those who make complaints against public officials. In my opinion, there's no doubt that these phenomena are more than mere allegations, and that they have in fact considerable basis in reality."

An estimated 10,000 Russian soldiers and as many as 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than a decade of secessionist fighting.

Arbour welcomed the beginning of physical and political reconstruction in the area, but said she still had "very serious concerns" about the integrity of institutions like law enforcement.

(compiled from agencies)