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Russia's Human Rights Record Uneven, Says U.S.

Washington, March 6 (nca/Lyle) - The Russian government's human rights record "continued to be uneven" in the last year, reports the U.S. State Department, with the worst reversals occurring in and around Chechnya.

In its annual report on human rights practices, the State Department says that there are Constitutional guarantees for most freedoms in Russia and that "institutions and democratic practices are evolving but not fully developed."

Most of the abuses noted by the U.S. report center on the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya which it says were "in conflict with a number of Russia's international obligations." It says: "The indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Chechnya by Russian troops resulted in thousands to tens of thousands of civilians killed and some 500,000 people displaced."

The report says there were "a substantial number of credible accounts of torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading punishment of chechens by Russian military and internal forces" and that the abuses included "beatings of combatants as well as of unarmed civilians."

It says "credible sources reported severe mistreatment of Chechen prisoners by Russian defense and internal security forces," but that the "worst violations of international humanitarian law and human rights" were committed by the "kontraktniki, nonconscripted Russian citizens paid by the Russian army."

The State Department says that the kontraktniki are the group "most likely responsible" for the "civilian massacre at Samashki," where 103 people aged 15 to 103 were killed in retaliation for the village's support for Chechen separatists.

More generally, the U.S. report says that the media in Russia functioned unhindered, with a few notable exceptions, and represented a wide range of opinion; that with some exceptions, non-governmental organizations freely documented and reported on human rights abuses; that while the judiciary is far from independent, it is starting to act more like an independent judiciary; that there are few reports of political prisoners, and that trial by jury has been introduced in nine out of 89 regions.

The report says the law on the Federal Security Service (FSB) has enhanced its powers, provides for only limited oversight and has human rights provisions that are "unclear." Further, it says, human rights groups are charging that the FSB is stepping up harassment of domestic critics and certain other groups in recent months.

There continue to be serious problems with detention and imprisonment of citizens, particularly before trial. The report says it is difficult to determine exactly how many citizens who were detained or incarcerated died in custody and notes that conditions in detention centers are harsh and, at times, life threatening with severe overcrowding caused by a lack of funds.

Conditions in prisons are better, it adds, but says that prison reform has not yet been instituted and a shortage of funds has forced many prisons to provide only 60 to 70 percent of the daily food ration and just 20 percent of needed medical care.

Freedom to practice religion is generally respected, says the report, although it says there were reports that Jehovah's Witnesses were forcibly inducted into the military and that Jews and Muslims "continue to encounter prejudice."