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Former U.S.S.R.: Human Rights Watch Releases 1997 World Report

Washington, 5 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The private organization Human Rights Watch says respect for human rights and democratic principles "deteriorated dramatically" in 1996 in Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The organization made the assessment in its seventh annual survey of global human rights practices. It made its report public at a press conference in Washington Wednesday.

The report is particularly harsh on Russia, saying human rights practices there did not improve at all in 1996 despite heightened expectations resulting from its admission into the Council of Europe. Instead, the report cites "hideous violations of humanitarian law" and "systematic violations of the rules of armed conflict" in Chechnya as the country's worst infringements.

The report also notes "unabated police brutality" against civilians, especially non-ethnic Russians, and the failure to repeal the propiska -- the residence permit -- as other serious human rights infraction.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Russia's failure to abide by international human rights standards, especially in regards to Chechnya, is partly the fault of the international community for failing to put more pressure on Russia to comply.

"In Russia, the major powers muted public protest over new atrocities in Chechnya in fear of jeopardizing the candidacy of Boris Yeltsin and risking the emergence of an openly oppressive government," Roth said during the press conference.

He added: "Instead, at the height of Russia's renewed slaughter of civilians in Chechnya, the Council of Europe ignored its own human rights standards to admit Russia as a member, and the International Monetary Fund awarded Russia a $10 billion loan. The major powers thus signaled acquiescence in whatever ghastly steps Moscow takes to rein in its breakaway republic."

The report also names Belarus as having an "ever-worsening status" in regards to human rights.

Censorship, harassment of independent journalists, media and trade unions representatives, police brutality, especially during demonstrations, and a presidential seizure of judiciary and parliamentary powers were all listed by the report as grave human rights infractions in Belarus.

One case specifically cited in the report as an incident of intimidation of the independent media was the physical attack on the wife of a correspondent for Radio Liberty's Russian Service.

Another incident mentioned was an April 26 march in Minsk commemorating the tenth anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

According to the report, 200 of the 50,000 marchers were beaten without cause, given unfair trials on fabricated charges and held without recourse in jail cells for up to 15 days. The report also says that two organizers of the march, both of whom were members of a political opposition party, were arrested and charged with organizing a mass disturbance.

Kyrgyzstan is another country also strongly criticized in the report.

The report lists government repression of the media there, the suspension of freedom of speech and association, the continued existence of a residence permit and internal passport thus limiting the freedom of movement for citizens, and the "alarming" consolidation of power by President Askar Akayev, as highlighting a "distressing trend" for human rights in Kyrgyzstan for 1996.

Cited by the report as specific abuses in Kyrgyzstan were constitutional illegality in the December 1995 presidential elections, a violation of freedom of expression by the arrest of two members of an opposition political party for distributing leaflets critical of the government, and the arrest and imprisonment of a journalist for libel, presumably for making comments unfavorable about the government.

The Human Rights Watch report also notes that 1996 was "the worst year" for human rights in Tajikistan since the end of its civil war in 1992.

The report says renewed fighting there between government and opposition forces resulted in violent attacks on minorities, individuals displaced by the fighting, and especially political activists, citing a string of political assassinations in the country.

The report was particularly critical of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in its dealings with Tajikistan, saying the two organizations "squandered their considerable influence" by approving multi-million dollar loans to that country without conditioning the credits on improvements in human rights practices.

Overall, the report cited concerns about police brutality, torture and other forms of mistreatment occurring during interrogations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Georgia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, adding that officials were "rarely" held accountable and confessions obtained under torture were "often admitted as evidence in trials."

The crackdown on political dissent in the countries of the former Soviet Union was mentioned by the report as well, saying that violations were particularly severe in the period leading up to the elections in Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan,

Also mentioned in the report were incidents of ethnically-motivated violence and discrimination, especially against the Roma minorities in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

On a positive note, Bulgaria was noted for having made progress in holding police officers accountable for violence against individuals in custody, and Uzbekistan was commended for the release of several prisoners of conscience, improvements in permitting the monitoring of human rights in the country, and its increased willingness to address new human rights abuses.