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Russia: Human Rights Experts Differ Over Isolating Moscow Economically

Witnesses gave grim testimony about the human rights situation in Russia during a hearing on 5 June in Washington of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. They put particular emphasis on the continuing war in Chechnya, as well as limited press freedoms throughout Russia. But they differed on whether the West should move to isolate Russia economically until peace is brought to Chechnya. Our Correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights advocates disagreed at a hearing in Washington Tuesday (5 June) over what steps the international community should take to persuade Russia to end the war in Chechnya.

The witnesses gave their differing recommendations before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. They included two of Russia's leading human rights activists, Yelena Bonner and Emil Pain.

Witnesses at the hearing also discussed other aspects of human rights in Russia in the 10 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Topics ranged from press freedom to some advocates' accusations that the Russian government is guilty of genocide in Chechnya.

Bonner -- the widow of Soviet human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov and chairman of the foundation named for him -- said the best way to stop the war in Chechnya is to stop all international assistance to the Moscow government. And she said that perhaps a more effective step would be to expel it from the Group of Seven leading industrial economies, also known as the G-7, or the G-7 plus Russia, and even the G-8.

"What is more important is that Russia is eager to get more international prestige. You cannot include Russia in the G-8 while it conducts the war [in Chechnya]. It goes without saying that Russia does not meet the economic standards for membership in it [the G-7]. If it stops the war, it might be a goodwill step to allow it to stay [in the G-8]."

Pain -- who once was an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- disagreed. Pain now consults on human rights issues at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

According to Pain, it would be more productive to engage Russia and use positive persuasion in any effort to end the Chechnya fighting. Isolating Russia, he said, would be bad for everyone.

"I suppose that within [this] organization [the G-7], it's much more easier to influence Russia than if -- in the situation of isolation. The situation of isolation will grow fascism in Russia. That is all. It will be [a] danger not only to Chechens, [but] to everybody."

Bonner also said she believes that Russia is guilty of genocide in Chechnya, at least indirectly. She told the Helsinki Commission that she is not sure that the Kremlin directly orders its army to commit genocidal acts in Chechnya. But she said unequivocally that she believes that the actions of Russian generals are de facto genocide.

"All male civilians, including boys as young as 12, are rounded up, and most of them disappear. That is also evidence of genocide."

Bonner said she is certain that there are mass graves in Chechnya filled with the bodies of many innocent victims executed by Russian forces. Unless the world community brings pressure soon to have these graves investigated and exposed, the Russian people will never know the truth about the war.

Another witness was John Beyrle, a U.S. State Department official specializing in the nations of the former Soviet Union. He was emphatic in stating that U.S. relations with Russia can never be normal as long as Moscow continues what he calls human rights abuses in Chechnya. He also accused the Russian government of stifling freedom of religion and the press.

In the area of press freedom, Beyrle said most observers in the West are probably aware only of the financial and legal pressures on Media-MOST and NTV, nationwide Russian news organizations that at times were critical of the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Beyrle said similar pressures are constantly being put on regional publishers and broadcasters. He said the world community must become more aware of the problems facing these media outlets, and they must support them.

The State Department official gave few details about the constraints put on Russia's regional meetings. But Bonner said journalists in these organizations face threats, beatings, and murders. According to Bonner, the people responsible are rarely if ever brought to justice.

Another witness -- Paul Goble, an analyst of Russian affairs -- agreed. Goble said 121 Russian journalists have been killed. He said that as far as he knows, only a few people have been charged with these killings, but so far there have been no convictions.

Goble, the communications director for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said that as a result of what he called a climate of intimidation, the killings, beatings, and threats have their constraining effect not only on their immediate targets. He said other journalists become aware of these tactics and, as a result, often report the news less candidly.