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Russia: Helsinki Commission Concerned Over Human Rights Record

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a hearing in Washington on Tuesday to examine whether human rights are in retreat in Russia under the new leadership of President Vladimir Putin. Key panel members and witnesses expressed concern that the answer appears to be yes. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission says there is growing concern that the development of human rights in Russia is taking a turn for the worse under new President Vladimir Putin.

Republican U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the panel also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said Tuesday recent Russian government actions against independent media are a source of grave concern as is the conduct of Russian forces in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Smith made the comments at a commission hearing in Washington called to examine the course of human rights in Russia.

"Under the administration of President (Boris) Yeltsin, human rights activists were able to achieve significant gains in making respect for human rights, if not a standard, at least a consideration in public policy. There is growing concern, however, that Russia's development in the area of human rights is taking a turn for the worse under recently elected President Vladimir Putin. "

Smith singled out two developments since the resignation of Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999. One was the treatment of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who was held prisoner by Russian authorities earlier this year. The other was the recent raid by masked Russian authorities on the Media-Most offices in Moscow. Media-Most owns the independent NTV network and other media properties that have been offering critical coverage of the war in Chechnya and trying to expose corrupt politicians.

"The treatment of Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky and the recent armed raid on the offices of Media-Most and Russia's independent NTV network are only two of the most brazen and prominent examples of government pressure on media freedom. Further from the international spotlight, local authorities in Russia's regions have been harassing and intimidating journalists who print what displeases the powers-that-be."

Smith said the signs were ominous.

"I dare say, with the treatment of Babitsky and the raid on Media-Most, Moscow seems to signal to the regions that such a policy toward the media is acceptable."

U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican and the panel's co-chairman, also made a similar conclusion.

"Recent actions against independent media are certainly a source of grave concern as is the conduct of Russian forces in the ongoing war in Chechnya. Ironically, a protracted war there could prove an Achilles heal for President Putin as casualties among young Russian conscripts rise."

Retired U.S. General William Odom, a former director of the super-secret National Security Agency, was the first to testify before the panel.

Odom said that while Russia maintains some of the formalities of electoral democracy, its policy in Chechnya and its management of the recent parliamentary and presidential elections make it difficult to believe that it is a truly democratic country. He said freedom of the press, due process of law and personal security for Russian citizens have all suffered setbacks.

"This is a highly dysfunctional kind of state to be in and it prevents any serious progress toward liberal democracy and civil society in the short run."

Odom also said the United States must overcome its residual Cold War thinking in which Russia is the most important country in the world. He said such an attitude is good neither for Russia nor for the West.

Igor Malashenko, first deputy chairman of the board of Media-Most, called the raid on the offices by heavily armed men in camouflage uniforms and black ski masks as an act of harassment by the Russian government.

The attacks on Media-Most and other Russian media are intended to intimidate publishers and journalists and to make them to self - censor themselves."

Malashenko said there is little doubt that the demonstration of force which occurred on May 11 also was intended as a punishment for material already published or aired on television programs.

"President Putin promised in his inauguration speech to establish a 'dictatorship of law' in Russia. Unfortunately, after the raid on Media-Most it looks like the Kremlin intends to rely more on the arbitrary and disproportionate use of force rather than the rule of law."

Babitsky, the RFE/RL correspondent, is barred from leaving Moscow and instead offered written testimony to the committee. In it, Babitsky was especially critical of Russian military tactics against Chechnya.

Babitsky said Russia employed an overwhelming military force, numbering about 90,000 men, against the small republic. And, he said, due to a massive information campaign, many Russians have become convinced that the large majority of Chechens are hostile to Russia.

Babitsky, whose independent coverage of the Chechen war infuriated Russian authorities, said the Chechens are deprived of their civil rights in Russia because of their ethnic background. He said no positive changes in the situation can take place as long as Russian authorities and the public opinion conceive the Chechen nation as a threat to the existence of Russia.