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Russia: Amnesty International Condemns Confiscation Of Report

Russian customs officials on 28 May confiscated copies of an Amnesty International report from a delegate headed for a seminar on democracy and human rights in Chechnya. Amnesty International says the confiscation smacks of Soviet-era attitudes. RFE/RL's Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 1 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International researcher Mariana Katzarova was stopped at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday and Russian customs seized two boxes of a report about human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Katzarova was flying from London, where Amnesty International has its headquarters, and was on a stopover on her way to Vladikavkaz, in Russia's North Ossetia region, for a seminar about human rights.

The meeting, on 30 May 30 and 31 May, was held at the suggestion of the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, who visited Chechnya earlier this year. Amnesty International says the confiscation of its materials is a bad sign for Russia's commitment to human rights.

Katzarova, speaking in Moscow yesterday, told RFE/RL that customs officials opened two boxes containing 100 copies of an Amnesty International report called "For the Motherland," which deals with human rights violations during the war in Chechnya and also cases of torture and beating of Chechens in Moscow. Katzarova:

"The customs inspector asked me to open the boxes, and he took one of the reports and started to read it. He started to make comments about it, and he called his supervisor over -- the deputy director of the customs service -- and he began to comment to him: 'Take a look, take a look, this is anti-state propaganda, this is anti-Russian propaganda,' and he said some words which I won't repeat here, but the gist of it was that the police and the Interior Ministry were being criticized."

Katzarova says that she explained she was an official guest of the Russian government, which was represented at the seminar. But the customs officials kept the report, saying that Katzarova might sell them and she did not have the correct documents for their importation. They did not tell her what the correct documents were.

"In the end they decided to impound these reports. I told them I was an official guest of the Russian government, I was invited by the Russian government to take part in this seminar, but that didn't help. I told them these materials were for the participants of the conference, and that we were going to give them out for free. They explained that they were not convinced that I wasn't going to use the report for commercial ends and make a profit from it."

Customs officials confirm that they seized the booklets, but other Russian officials were unavailable for comment. And Amnesty International spokeswoman Judith Arenas said that Russian officials, including Vladimir Kalamanov, the country's human rights ombudsman, have given no response to her group's protest.

"The worrying thing is that it brings to mind old Soviet practices. And we find it deeply ironic that it should be the Russian authorities themselves who invite Amnesty International to a conference on human rights in Chechnya, only to find that our reports are confiscated at the airport because they're considered anti-Russian. And that's not the case, they're not anti-anything, they're simply pro-human rights."

Arenas said that the incident calls into question Russia's commitment to investigate human rights violations, particularly in Chechnya, as well as its commitment to freedom of speech.

"Essentially, it just brings to mind to us what is really the political will of the Russian authorities to solve the conflict in Chechnya, to protect civilians whose human rights are being violated and protect innocent civilians from further atrocities, not just in Chechnya but in other parts of the Russian Federation."

Arenas said that if the documents are returned, they will be distributed to the people and organizations they were intended for. The material is available now in the library of Amnesty International's Internet site. Human rights groups have accused Russian forces fighting separatist guerrillas in Chechnya of widespread human rights violations against the civilian population including looting, rape, and summary execution.

Russia has been reluctant to allow international human rights observers access to Chechnya. The Council of Europe, a watchdog for human rights and democracy standards, has been putting pressure on Russia, a council member, to allow independent human rights observers into Chechnya. Moscow has allowed only a few foreign delegations to travel to the republic, and those visits were carefully choreographed. Participants said they were not allowed to visit the areas they wanted to inspect.

The seminar Katzarova was attending was organized in part by the Council of Europe.

In April, the Council of Europe suspended Russia's rights to take part in the council's parliamentary assembly because of criticism of Russia's human rights record in Chechnya. Later this month, the council will again debate Russia's status, and the confiscation of the literature will undoubtedly be discussed.