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Watch List: January 28, 1999

28 January 1999, Volume 1, Number 3

A $10 MILLION PLANK. In a speech to civil rights activists in Moscow on Jan. 25, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised $10 million in 1999 to help independent media in Russia. The figure is four times the U.S. contribution in 1998 and is part of the U.S. aid package to help various aspects of civil society. "Ten million dollars is a plank in the lifeboat that Russian media needs," says Bill Maynes of the Washington-based Eurasia Foundation. "Other governments and NGOs need to provide more planks. If we have enough planks the lifeboat may float, but to reach shore the Russian economic climate must change."

HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT SCORES ARMENIA� The independent U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized Armenia's government for violations including "rampant physical abuse" of conscripts leading to "numerous deaths," police abuse of detainees, detention of journalists, laws codifying religious intolerance, and failure to prosecute cases of ballot-tampering and violent incidents during the March presidential elections. HRW says its recent investigation suggests that the Council of Europe should reject Armenia's application for membership. "We take any report on human rights violations very seriously," Ambassador Rouben Shugarian told RFE/RL in Washington. "We are ready to investigate the cases together with HRW."

� ARMENIANS APPEAL TO REOPEN CHURCH IN TURKMENISTAN Turkmen citizens of Armenian origin are asking the government to reopen their church in Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk) expropriated during the Soviet era. While Armenia's ambassador, Aram Grigoryan, urges the reopening, under a 1996 law Turkmen authorities registered only Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, rejecting all other faiths.

RUSSIAN LINE ON RELIGION HARDENS The Russian provinces least hospitable to religious freedom are Ulyanovsk, Voronezh, Krasnodar, and Mordovia, says Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She warned about a Russian trend to harden the 1997 law on religion and a return to the norms of the Soviet era.

BAN SOUGHT ON NAZI BOOK On Jan 21, the U.S.-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews urged the Latvian government to ban a 1942 Nazi propaganda book recently reprinted and distributed by the Homeland and Freedom Party, the far-right member of the ruling coalition. In Riga, the Foreign Ministry asked the Prosecutor General to review the book which charges that after Soviet occupation Jews joined the Soviet secret police to repress Latvians and used their victims' blood in rituals.

BACK TO THE ETHNIC I.D.? Deputies in Georgia introduced a bill to restore the entry "ethnicity" or "nationality" in identity documents, which was dropped after the Soviet Union's collapse. Antti Korkaakivi of the Council of Europe's Human Rights Division told RFE/RL that no West European democracy follows such a practice, as a 1998 Framework Convention states that a person belonging to an ethnic group has the right to choose whether or not to be so listed. In a radio speech, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze favored the entry, arguing that it is "not right to follow the West blindly in the matter."

CONVICTION IN DEPORTATION CASE On Jan. 22 an Estonian court convicted Johannes Klaassepp, a former Soviet security official now 77, for ordering the deportation of more than 20 people in 1949. He received an eight-year suspended sentence. His is the first conviction in Estonia for involvement in Stalin-era deportations.

CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER THREATENED The New York-based International League for Human Rights reports two recent threats by Belarusian authorities to bring criminal charges against civil rights lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya. The threatened charges against her have to do with her statements during a visit to the U.S. last year and her work as an attorney for Vasily Starovoitov, a former collective farm director accused of embezzlement.

INSULTING THE PRESIDENT A Baku court opened the trial of Abulfaz Elchibey on Jan. 25, the first president of Azerbaijan ousted in a military coup in 1993 and now an opposition leader. He is accused of insulting President Heidar Aliyev last year when he stated that Aliev, as a KGB official, had been involved in setting up the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist organization. Elchibey says he can prove his charge. If found guilty, he faces up to six years in prison.