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Russia: Amnesty International Uses Bus Tour To Highlight Moscow's Rights Abuses

Amnesty International, known for its petitions and letter-writing campaigns, has hit on a new tactic to call attention to human rights violations: a traveling bus. The blue bus, driven by Swiss activists, is slowly making its way through Europe, headed for Moscow. Its mission: to call attention to human rights abuses in Russia.

Prague, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This is the year of Russia at Amnesty International, but that probably won't be welcome news to the Kremlin.

For most of 2003, as part of its "Russia Campaign," the international watchdog has focused attention on the violation of human rights in Russia, issuing reports and initiating letter-writing campaigns.

But a group of activists from the organization's Swiss chapter has come up with a more original way to "drive" their message across. Last month, Gerhard Wyser-Thut, his wife Agnes and two other Amnesty campaigners packed up a stack of photographs, petitions, and information brochures and set off from Bern aboard a large blue bus, on a 100-day journey to Moscow. So far, the bus has traveled through Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia before crossing into the Czech Republic.

"The project is within the worldwide Russia campaign that Amnesty International launched last November," project organizer Christa Dold said. "This [bus] is a particular project of the Swiss section of Amnesty International. We had the idea that we would like to use the bus as some sort of campaigning tool to strengthen the structures and sections in Eastern Europe that are relatively young and don't have a lot of financial and human resources. So we are traveling through Eastern Europe, to Russia, to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Russia but also on the concept of human rights in general."

The bus is part exhibition space, part information stand. Many aspects of human rights in Russia are covered, including the situation in war-torn Chechnya.

"One of the main issues, definitely, is the conflict in Chechnya. People disappear in Chechnya every day. They are arrested by the Russian authorities in the streets and their loved ones and family members are not informed about their whereabouts. Sometimes they are found executed extrajudicially, after months. Sometimes their families are not informed about what happened to them at all," Dold said.

The Amnesty exhibition also deals with the issue of Russian police brutality in non-conflict zones. Despite Russia's ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture, Amnesty claims ill-treatment of detainees is "virtually routine in police stations" across Russia. The organization says it has documented numerous cases of torture used against inmates in pre-trial detention. Methods include "beatings, electric shocks, rape, [and] the use of gas masks to induce near-suffocation." After they are released, Amnesty says, victims of police brutality often have no way to seek redress through the criminal justice system.

Dold says Amnesty, in its Russia campaign, has also chosen to emphasize the rights of certain ethnic minorities who face discrimination.

"Another topic that we are dealing with, especially with this bus project, are ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation. They are discriminated against on a regular basis. We raise the case of one ethnic minority whose rights are being violated. Those are the Meskhetians," Dold says.

During World War II, the Soviet authorities deported over 100,000 Meskhetians from their home in Georgia to Central Asia's Ferghana Valley. In 1989, after bloody pogroms in the region, tens of thousands of Meskhetians were forced to leave and many were resettled in southern Russia. But due to the local authorities' refusal to officially register them, most Meskhetians have not been able to obtain Russian citizenship. This October, when Soviet-era passports expire, most will become stateless.

Amnesty has prepared symbolic paper Russian "passports" that can be signed as part of a petition campaign addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging Russia to abide by its human rights commitments.

In many ways, the most difficult part of the journey still lies ahead for the Amnesty bus crew, as it prepares to cross into Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia. Driver Gerhard Wyser-Thut says he and his crew have all the necessary visas and hope the authorities will let their bus through.

"We got the visas and as far as I know, they are informed that we are doing this not only as tourists. But the visa is just one part of entering the country. It's not a guarantee that we can go in. They still can refuse us. This is the risk we run. We hope, of course, that everything will be okay and that we can enter the country with this visa, at the border crossing. We hope but we don't know how it will turn out," Wyser-Thut says.

So far, the Amnesty campaigners have collected some 2,000 signatures for their petition and the reception has been good, thanks to organizational help from local volunteers. But as they travel further east, says Dold, opinions have become more polarized.

"I realized when we started this project in Switzerland that the Russian Federation is a country far away and people don't really know about the circumstances there, so it could be any other country that you ask people to sign a petition for. But the closer we come to the Russian Federation, people have certain emotions connected to this country, also [political feelings], and the reactions vary. Some really support what we are doing here and others don't agree at all, especially when it comes to the petition that we have for the ethnic minorities and the Chechen conflict. People feel more emotionally about this [in Eastern Europe], I think," Dold says.

One middle-aged passerby in Prague, Vladislava Vorackova, tells RFE/RL that people like her do have mixed emotions about Russia, having experienced Soviet occupation. But, she says, signing the Amnesty petition, human rights should be guaranteed to all, regardless of politics.

"I belong to the generation which studied Russian in school. It was part of my high-school graduation exam and I have it ingrained in my brain. As a language, I like Russian. We had a very good Russian teacher. Part of my family's roots go back to the territory of the former Soviet Union. I've never been there, but I think that ordinary people are the same everywhere -- over here and over there. It doesn't matter if I'm Czech or Russian or African or anything else," Vorackova says.

Amnesty staffers hope it's a message the Kremlin will take to heart.