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In Russia, Slow Progress Seen In Protecting Human Rights

Washington, Jan. 23 (RFE/RL) - An expert on Russian law says the courts in Russia are becoming more involved in protecting human rights but adds that there is much room for improvement.

Antii Korkeakivi says the big test will come on Thursday in Strasbourg, France, when the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe is scheduled to decide the fate of Russia's membership application. Membership in the Council is considered an indispensable qualification for full membership in both the European Union and NATO.

Korkeakivi, a Finn, works for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, an organization with offices in Washington and New York. He says that the Council has very strict human rights requirements.

"When a country becomes a member, it promises to adopt the European Human Rights Convention... the most important regional human right's treaty in the world," Korkeakivi said.

By accepting this treaty, Russia would give its citizens the right to send complaints of human rights violations to a court in Strasbourg. The decisions made by that court would be legally binding on Russia.

"I hope that in Russia, individuals, organizations and lawyers will learn to use these mechanisms to their advantage," he said.

Whatever the outcome in Strasbourg, Korkeakivi stressed that one of the major improvements in the field of human rights in Russia has been the re-establishment of the Constitutional Court, shelved in 1993, but now back in operation.

"Even though it gave, in my opinion, a very questionable decision on Chechnya - finding that President (Boris) Yeltsin's decrees were constitutional or beyond its jurisdiction - it has also passed down some decisions that were actually quite good for human rights," he said.

"So human rights advocates should not be totally discouraged by the Chechnya decision, although it was disappointing to many of us," Korkeakivi said.

However, Holly Cartner, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, disagrees. She says her organization has recommended suspending the vote on Russia's application to the Council of Europe because of its "massive violation" of human rights in Chechnya. The organization made a similar recommendation last year.

Cartner says that although measures have been taken in individual cases Human Rights Watch/Helsinki's annual report notes a general regression from human rights reform in Russia. She cited, for example, a decision by Yeltsin in April to reorganize the department of judicial reform which had been very active in addressing Russia's criminal justice system.

She said: "This is a critical area where reform is needed. The Yeltsin administration actually reorganized this in a way that would tend to prevent future reform."

Moreover, Cartner says that two laws were enacted dealing with the secret service and the ability of undercover agents to conduct searches without warrants. She says police have been given a powers similar to those under the Soviet system. "We find these of extreme concern for future human rights in Russia," she said.

Both Korkeakivi and Cartner expressed concern that legislative progress toward protecting human rights may be in because of the resurgence of the Communist Party in last December's parliamentary elections.

"This would certainly indicate a negative trend for human rights in the near future in Russia," says Cartner. "But I also have to point out that this negative trend had already started under the Yeltsin administration."

Korkeakivi was more optimistic. He said the new State Duma is not likely to be too supportive of human rights legislation, but he suggested that Russian courts in general are becoming, albeit slowly, a major force in protecting human rights.