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Russia: Moscow Research Center For Human Rights Honored

London, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Moscow Research Center for Human Rights, located in a former Komsomol building not far from the former KGB headquarters, is a focal point for human rights organizations throughout Russia.

Founded in 1993, the Center is the first of its kind in Russia and it devotes its work to the coordination and development of the country's human rights movement. The Center says its purpose is to ensure the irreversibility of democratic reforms in Russia.

The Center works with a wide variety of international donors and partners, including the EU's Tacis Democracy Program.

The Research Center is an umbrella organization, a union of independent non-government organizations working in many different human rights related areas, and operating as the center's equal partners rather than its subsidiaries.

Soviet-era dissidents and younger rights activists have joined together to confront such issues as children's rights, the defense of the rights of prisoners, and of soldiers serving in the Russian army. The center's corridors are usually full of people seeking help, from deserting soldiers to children escaping from abusive orphanages.

One of its most important programs, known as the "Right of Child," works with orphans, homeless children, disabled children, sexually-abused children and children suffering from domestic violence. The project, the only one of its kind in Russia, is led by a Brezhnev-era human rights activist, Boris Altshuler.

The scale of the problem is formidable. About 50,000 children flee their families and homes in Russia every year to escape beatings and persecutions. There are approximately one million homeless children in Russia. Some 50,000 teenagers are in prison.

The program stages visits (often unannounced) to institutions where, according to information received, children are abused.

Recently, it successfully opposed legislative proposals of the Duma's Women, Youth and Family Affairs Committee which sought to ban the international adoption of Russian orphans.

Activists argued that closing off foreign adoption would simply ensure that Russian children currently in orphanages would remain institutionalized, doomed to ill-health, delinquency and drug abuse.

They pointed out that, for each child in its care, an orphanage receives a healthy allowance from the state and so opposition to adoption was strong from those with an interest in making money.

Another organization, the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, is working to promote a fair, humane and effective system of criminal justice and punishment. In particular, it is working toward a system of public control over law enforcement bodies, and the restoration of the tradition of independent trustees over jails.

Official estimates place the increase in the total prison population at over 50,000 a year. Prisoners often live in conditions that are considered by international experts to be "appalling and inhumane."

Russian newspapers have reported that "many criminals, horrified at the prospect of life behind bars, have sought to be shot after their death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment."

Another organization under the umbrella of the Moscow Research Center for Human Rights, the Moscow branch of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee of Russia, works to protect the human rights of soldiers and their parents. Its representatives have visited various "hot-spots", such as Chechnya, on humanitarian aid missions.