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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 24, 2006

24 May 2006, Volume 8, Number 19
AMNESTY REPORT NOTES CONTINUED RIGHTS ABUSES IN CIS. Amnesty International on May 23 released its annual report on the global state of human rights. The report's findings were mixed regarding CIS states -- a catalogue of continuing abuses with some progress. Russia was lambasted for a rise in racially motivated killings. Belarus and Azerbaijan both received criticism for cracking down on opposition activists and politicians. And Ukraine and Georgia -- countries that have improved their democratic credentials since their colored revolutions -- were chastised for their records on police torture.

As Lamzar Samba, a student from Senegal, was leaving a popular St. Petersburg nightclub in April, he was killed by a gunshot to the neck.

Russian police on May 22 detained five suspects over the killing. A sixth suspect was killed last week by police while allegedly resisting arrest.

The attack on the student was one of a spate of racially motivated attacks in Russia in recent weeks. Rights watchers say such attacks are on the rise.

Amnesty International's annual report notes that in 2005 in Russia there were at least 28 killings and 365 assaults motivated by racial hatred. Foreigners and Russian citizens from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus have been the main targets.

Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary-general, says there have been many other disturbing signs in Russia over the past year.

"We have seen the Russian government introducing restrictions against NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], clamping down on human rights defenders and journalists," Khan said. "We have seen the Russian government totally ignore and refuse to take action against its own security forces in Chechnya, who have committed human rights abuses."

Russia's apparent backsliding on human rights has caused many observers to question the country's tenure as chair of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers and presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized nations.

Judit Arenas, a senior spokeswoman for Amnesty, says Russia has taken some positive steps. She cites President Vladimir Putin's recognition of racism as a problem during his recent address to the nation.

But she adds that Russia should do more and should set a leading example on the international stage.

"Russia actually blocked major resolutions at the UN Security Council on Darfur," Arenas said. "It's got a major problem on its doorstep in Chechnya, which has not been resolved. There are other issues in the Caucasus and it has to lead by example and actually clearly demonstrate that if it wants to be a global player [then] it must actually abide by the rules of the game."

The Amnesty report criticizes Belarus and Azerbaijan for their violent crackdowns on opposition activists and journalists. In Armenia, despite commitments made to the Council of Europe, conscientious objectors to military service still remain in jail.

But what of Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that have improved their democratic records since their recent "colored revolutions"?

The Amnesty report criticizes both countries for reports of torture and ill treatment by law-enforcement officers.

Amnesty highlights reports that Georgian police have placed plastic bags over detainees' heads and beaten prisoners with gun butts.

However, the report points out that in both Ukraine and Georgia, senior officials have begun to address the issue.

In Ukraine, the new government after the 2004 Orange Revolution changed legislation to allow state officials to be charged with torture.

And in Georgia, several high-ranking politicians have pledged to fight police abuse. There has also been more extensive monitoring of detention facilities.

Arenas says Georgia has been willing to listen to recommendations and implement legal amendments.

"The problem has actually been that that message has actually not translated down to the level of law-enforcement officials, who are the ones who continue to torture and ill-treat people," Arenas added.

The report notes that police in Georgia continue to cover up crimes and detainees are often afraid to file a complaint for fear of reprisals. (Luke Allnutt)

EU FREEZES PRESIDENT'S ASSETS. The EU agreed on May 18 to freeze the assets of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and 35 other officials in response to the presidential election in Belarus in March. While Lukashenka is widely believed to have made a fortune in his presidential post in Belarus, hard evidence of this has not yet been produced.

In a statement on May, the EU said it was taking the step to freeze the officials' assets to protest the flawed election in March and the continuing crackdown against opposition groups.

The move expands measures imposed in April, which placed a visa ban on Lukashenka and 30 other senior officials.

The EU said in the statement that "no funds or economic resources shall be made available, directly or indirectly, to or for the benefit of the persons involved."

So far, however, attempts on the part of Western investigators to track down any clandestine funds have not brought any conclusive results.

In October 2004, the U.S. Congress passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which in particular obliged the U.S. president to present annual reports on the sale and delivery of weapons and weapons-related technologies from Belarus to any countries supporting terrorism, and on the personal assets and wealth of Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian officials.

U.S. President George W. Bush presented such a report a few days before the March 19 presidential vote in Belarus.

In its unclassified part, the U.S. report asserts that Lukashenka is "likely [to be] among the most corrupt leaders in the world." But at the same time the report acknowledges that it is difficult to determine the precise extent of this corruption because of "the regime's lack of transparency and the blurring of personal and state property."

Washington also claims that Lukashenka controls a presidential reserve fund with assets "well over $100 million," which are not recorded in the state budget and are beyond public scrutiny.

However, the evidence to support such claims is sketchy and comes mainly from public pronouncements of former Belarusian officials who have fallen out of favor with Lukashenka.

One such official is former Belarusian National Bank Chairman Tamara Vinnikava, who was arrested in 1997 on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement and later placed under house arrest. She managed to escape to the United Kingdom in 1999 under undisclosed circumstances and afterwards gave a number of media interviews.

Vinnikava claimed that Lukashenka had ordered her arrest because she opposed "dirty deals" proposed by the government.

She confirmed earlier Russian press reports charging that Lukashenka issued confidential decrees exempting some organizations -- including the state-run Torgexpo company in 1995 -- of paying any taxes or customs duties for the import of consumer goods. Those untaxed goods, primarily vodka and cigarettes, were subsequently re-exported to Russia -- which had no customs controls on its border with Belarus at that time -- and part of the proceeds from their sale reportedly landed in Lukashenka's secret fund. Some estimates put Torgexpo's income at billions of dollars.

Vinnikava also said Lukashenka was cautious not to sign any documents relating to such murky transactions or to deposit proceeds from them in foreign banks under his own name. According to her, such deposits were made on behalf of bogus companies that were created especially for this purpose. Vinnikava suggested that such deposits may have been placed in San Marino, Cuba, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is also widely believed that Lukashenka has personally benefited from sales of Belarus's large stock of Soviet-era weapons. Again, the size of such profits may only be estimated on the basis of indirect evidence.

In 1996-98, Belarus sold some 50 Soviet-era aircraft and other air-force equipment for around $400 million to Peru, at a time of escalating tensions with Ecuador.

According to the book titled "The Mafia State," which was published by a Peruvian anticorruption investigator in Lima in 2001, the deal was handled by a chain of intermediary firms established in offshore jurisdictions especially for this purpose. As a result, the name Beltekheksport, Belarus's official arms dealer, was absent from the contract or any other document related to the deal.

"The Mafia State" asserts that the deal scheme was devised to divert some $120 million from Peru's payment for the Belarusian delivery. A part of this sum, the book claims, might have landed in secret accounts controlled by the Belarusian partner in the scheme.

Before his electorate in Belarus, Lukashenka poses as an unwavering fighter against official corruption. And he takes harsh measures against anyone trying to challenge this posture.

Valery Levaneuski, a leader of small vendors in Belarus, spent two years in prison on charges of defaming Lukashenka in a 2004 May Day leaflet, which featured the phrase: "Come and say no to someone holidaying in Austria, skiing there, and living well at your expense."

The leaflet hinted at Lukashenka's earlier winter holiday at a ski resort in Austria, where the Belarusian president traveled on his own plane and with his own bodyguards. Levaneuski apparently wondered how Lukashenka had managed to pay his holiday bill from his presidential salary, which he claims to be his sole source of income.

In his income declaration made public on the eve of the March 19 presidential vote in Belarus, Lukashenka stated that he earned in 2005 some 60 million rubles ($28,000). (Jan Maksymiuk)