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World: U.S. Official Discusses Rights Issues In Russia, Caucasus

Human rights activists in Azerbaijan conducting a hunger strike in November 2006 (Turan) WASHINGTON, March 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department has issued its annual report on human rights around the globe. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Jeff Krilla, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, about the report's conclusions in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the former Yugoslavia.

RFE/RL: U.S. President George W. Bush often speaks highly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. How did Putin's Russia stand on human rights last year?

Jeff Krilla: 2006 was a bad year for Russia in terms of human rights. One of the things we do in our human rights report is not only talk about the human rights conditions in each country on the planet, but we talk about trajectory. And unfortunately, when we talk about trajectory, one of the biggest backsliders we've seen -- certainly in terms of Europe -- has been Russia. And it's very disconcerting to those of us who follow human rights issues.

We see government accountability to the people decreasing through a continued concentration of power in the Kremlin. We see increased restrictions on NGOs, declined media freedoms, and certainly the harassment and killing of journalists has been particularly troubling to those of us that continue to promote media freedoms as fundamental to any democratic society.

RFE/RL: What about Russia's record in Chechnya -- and the record of those who oppose Russia there?

Krilla: One of the things that we have done, as U.S. officials, has been to stress to Russian officials our support for a political rather than a military solution in Chechnya. We've urged an end to human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, and accountability for abuses that occur and that have occurred. We've urged cooperation with the international community on humanitarian, economic, and stability issues. So we've worked very hard on the Chechnya issue and certainly met frequently with human rights NGOs to discuss the situation on the ground in Chechnya and to show support for their very hard work.

RFE/RL: Westerners watched the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine with great optimism a little more than two years ago. How is Ukraine faring now?

Krilla: One of the things that I do want to stress is that we have seen the situation in Ukraine improve. The fact that the March 2006 parliamentary elections were the most open and honest in Ukraine's history is a huge step forward for the country. And Ukraine has continued to show improvement in press freedom, freedom of association, and development of civil society.

Pro-Moscow Chechen security forces caught on film abusing a civilian (courtesy photo)

For those that would argue that the luster has worn off of the Orange Revolution, I would argue that a lot of the lasting effects of the Orange Revolution are in place and, in fact, have been consolidated. We're not in the business of picking winners and losers in terms of these elections. The fact that elections are up to internationally recognized standards is what's critical to us and to other democratic countries that work to promote human rights and democracy.

RFE/RL: And what of Georgia?

Krilla: Georgia's another country that we see having a very positive trajectory, although for all the improvement that we've seen recently, there are serious problems that remain in certain areas. There [are] reports of deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuses of prisoners, overuse of pretrial detention, and certainly concerns about worsening conditions in detention facilities.

But we still have seen a lot of progress, the last couple of years have been very positive in Georgia overall, but I think we continue -- in these human rights reports -- to focus on the conditions across the society, across all the institutions. And certainly I noted a number of areas that Georgia could show increased improvement that we're focused on, in our bilateral relations with the Georgians.

RFE/RL: How is the human rights situation in Armenia, which has tilted more to Moscow than the West since the breakup of the Soviet Union?

Krilla: We've got an election coming up in Armenia this year in April, but I think the human rights conditions continue to remain poor. There are credible reports that law enforcement officials engaged in arbitrary arrests [and] detention and abuse of detainees. There's a lot of concern, from our perspective, of rule-of-law issues in Armenia. And certainly media freedom is not what it could be. The government has restricted freedom of speech and the press, and I might even note -- through a very unusual move -- lawmakers rejected a government-sponsored bill that would have further restricted media activities.

There is still an opposition, in that we see having some sort of force to try and keep the checks and balances in the government in place. But overall media freedom and rule-of-law issues are of concern to us.

I will also add two other areas of concern. Religious freedom. Government and overall Armenian society continue to view minority religious groups with suspicion. Although they are allowed to operate, I think this is something that bears watching. And secondly, trafficking in persons. Trafficking in persons for purposes of sexual and labor exploitation continued to be a problem in 2006, although the government did pass legislation that toughened penalties for trafficking -- something else that bears attention, I think, in the future.

RFE/RL: And what of Armenia's neighbor, Azerbaijan?

Krilla: The human rights conditions in Azerbaijan remained poor in 2006. The government continued to imprison persons for politically motivated reasons, and restrictions on freedom of media, freedom of assembly and political participation worsened. Now, there were some improvements in the period leading up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections, but the May 13 partial reruns in 10 of the races in Azerbaijan failed to meet a number of international standards. So I think we're going to keep an eye on the situation there.

Squalid conditions in a Georgian prison in March 2006 (Interpressnews)

Our report is very comprehensive for the conditions in 2006, but certainly elections have been troubling in recent years in Azerbaijan. And we've seen restrictions on freedom of the press increase, and harassment and violence against journalists have continued. Freedom of assembly has been a problem in Azerbaijan. Restrictions on freedom of assembly have worsened, [the] government has often denied opposition parties' requests simply to hold political rallies.

And then on the issues of religious freedom and trafficking in persons. Religious freedom issues: [the] government of Azerbaijan generally respected religious freedom but did restrict it for some Muslim groups on grounds that these groups were radical or fundamentalist -- something else that I think bears attention. And then in terms of trafficking in persons, I'd actually say this is a bright spot for the government of Azerbaijan. The government's taken several important steps to combat trafficking in persons, and I think we'd like to see that trend continue as well.

RFE/RL: Finally the former Yugoslavia -- specifically Serbia. How has it fared since breaking with Montenegro?

Krilla: I think we did note in our human rights report for 2006 that the government [of Serbia] generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but we did note numerous problems that persisted. Corruption in the police and the judiciary [was] a problem in 2006, there still continues to be inefficient and lengthy trials. There's been a failure to cooperate with the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] in apprehending war crimes suspects.

There's ongoing harassment of journalists, human rights workers, and others critical of the government, and we've seen arbitrary arrests and selective enforcement of the law for political purposes. Following the May 21 referendum of last year, we did see a very peaceful dissolution of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, and I think the Serbians -- and the Montenegrins -- can be praised for that peaceful transition that we saw there.

UN Human Rights Council

UN Human Rights Council

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