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U.S.: American Activists Fear For Human Rights In Russia

Despite claims of a new era in U.S.-Russian relations, there is growing concern among American activists that the issues of human rights, freedom, and democracy are no longer top priorities in Washington's relations with Moscow.

Washington, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch today for what's being billed -- to quote Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart -- as "the beginning of a beautiful friendship" with the United States.

But American human rights activists are up in arms over what they perceive as the Bush administration turning a blind eye to Russian abuses -- especially in the war-torn Caucasus region of Chechnya -- as the price for Moscow's friendship and its support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of 11 September that killed nearly 5,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the United States had often publicly taken Moscow to task for its conduct in Chechnya. According to human rights groups, tens of thousands of civilians have been indiscriminately killed since the war first broke out in Chechnya in 1994.

But Moscow and Washington have forged closer ties following the terrorist attacks, with Putin even comparing Russia's Chechen war to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. That war is aimed at toppling the ruling Taliban and destroying the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of September's attacks.

Putin says the Chechen war is also an antiterrorist action, launched after Chechen terrorists allegedly blew up Moscow residential buildings in 1999, killing some 300 people. Putin also says Al-Qaeda members are fighting in Chechnya, and last month Bush acknowledged for the first time that Russia faces an international terrorist threat in the region.

U.S. human rights activists are now wondering whether this new relationship with Russia will prevent Washington from showing its traditional concern for Russian rights abuses -- both in Chechnya and also manifested in the increasingly restricted freedoms enjoyed by the media and NGOs.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International League for Human Rights, one of the main U.S. rights groups with observer status at the United Nations. Fitzpatrick, citing recent reports of fresh atrocities in Chechnya compiled by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, says Russian abuses appear to have worsened since this "new friendship" with the U.S. started:

"Because of the events of 11 September, because of the U.S.-Russian rapprochement and the war against terrorism, there's a definite climate of impunity. It's a kind of green light, you know, that is given -- that the forces there feel that anything goes."

Indications of the apparent shift in U.S. priorities can be found in statements made by Bush himself. Three weeks ago in Shanghai, Bush told Putin that the war on international terrorism should not translate into a war on minorities -- a clear reference to Chechnya, human rights activists say.

But at the 13 November White House news conference with Putin, Bush praised what he called Russia's progress in dealing with its minorities, as well as Putin's efforts to forge a political solution in Chechnya.

Tom Malinowski is the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, which, like Fitzpatrick's group, wrote to Bush and Putin this week to urge them to bring an end to the killing in Chechnya.

Malinowski -- citing Bush's statement on 13 November -- suspects a change has occurred in the U.S. stance on Chechnya: "He welcomed the progress in Chechnya, which was rather stunning, given the fact that there really has been no progress in Chechnya. It indicates there may, in fact, be a trade-off between Russian support for the war on terrorism and U.S. criticism of human rights violations in Chechnya."

The report by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was drawn up after its members recently spent two weeks interviewing Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia. The report concludes that the situation in Chechnya is getting worse, with murder, disappearances, and torture occurring on a daily basis.

But Fitzpatrick warns that other rights abuses loom in Russia, including the possibility that Western-funded NGOs are being forced to either give in to government demands on their activities or else face harassment and taxation.

"We need to be concerned not just about unsavory people that need to be put on the payroll for the war against terrorism. We need to be concerned about how you support civil society in a positive way and people who understand American objectives and if those objectives are about universal values, who share those universal values. That is not what's happening."

Fitzpatrick says the situation brewing in the Central Asian countries -- where she said crackdown on dissent is commonly carried out in the name of "antiterrorism" -- could come back to haunt both Russia and the United States. Fitzpatrick urges authorities in those countries, particularly in Uzbekistan, to legalize civil society NGOs: "When you don't legalize society, they begin to take other forms to vent their protests. It's a recipe for disaster and [for the] breeding of terrorism."

Malinowski agrees. And he adds that if the U.S. turns a blind eye to Moscow's abuses, then Bush's efforts to ensure the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is not seen as a war on Islam could be undermined by suspected Russian atrocities against Muslim civilians in Chechnya. "The United States is not going to be able to fight an effective global war on terrorism if it's associated with practices -- for example, in Chechnya -- that fail to distinguish between terrorists and people with legitimate political aspirations."

But even if Bush privately presses Putin on Chechnya, does a U.S. government bent on getting Russian backing for its war in Afghanistan and concessions for its missile defense system really have much leverage?

Fitzpatrick thinks so. Ultimately, she says, if Russia wants to be part of the West, it will have to play by Western rules, such as respect for democracy and human rights. She believes strongly that Russia is gravely violating these concepts in Chechnya:

"There's no other member of the G-8 [group of industrialized countries] that has been slaughtering civilians on this massive scale. That's all there is to it."

After the Bush-Putin summit ends today in Texas, the Russian president will depart for New York and the United Nations. Both Malinowski and Fitzpatrick hope that before Putin leaves, Bush will press him to open Chechnya to United Nations human rights monitors, to hold his military officers accountable for brutalities in Chechnya -- not one has been found guilty of abuse since the first war began in 1994 -- and to keep human rights high on the U.S.-Russian agenda.