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Watch List: March 12, 1999

12 March 1999, Volume 1, Number 9

STATE DEPARTMENT'S HUMAN RIGHTS SURVEY FINDS A MIXED PICTURE IN CENTRAL EUROPE... The U.S. State Department's 22nd annual human rights report (see Watchlist, March 4) found that the three countries scheduled to join NATO next month--Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary--respected human rights in 1998 but failed to resolve problems in law enforcement. In Poland, the report noted poor prison conditions and inadequate legal administration. In the Czech Republic and Hungary, the report said that discrimination and violence against Roma persists. Meanwhile, in Slovakia, which hopes to join NATO in the next round, the report expressed hope that the new government will show greater respect for human rights and democratic principles than its predecessor. Two other NATO hopefuls, Romania and Bulgaria, were found generally respectful of human rights, except for the police and security services which continued the practice of serious abuses. In Albania, the report found improvement in press freedom and freedom of assembly, but the government remained passive in basic law enforcement.

...GROSS VIOLATIONS BY SERBIA... The State Department reported a significant worsening in Yugoslavia's violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests. The government also severely restricted press freedom and discriminated against women, ethnic Albanians, Muslims, Roma, and other minorities. The Croatian record of violations was similar but far less intense and showed improvement in one area: permitting the return of refugee citizens. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the report found the government's commitment to human rights still uncertain, with the police accused of using coersion and the news media suffering from government control. In Macedonia, human rights are generally respected, though the police continued to abuse its power and "societal" discrimination against minorities remained a problem. In contrast, Slovenia's record was good in virtually every category, and Montenegro, the junior member of the Yugoslav federation, was described as a bright spot.

...SERIOUS PROBLEMS IDENTIFIED IN UKRAINE AND BELARUS... In Ukraine, the State Department found limited progress in some areas but serious problems with government interference in the elections, the privacy of citizens, and freedom of the press. The report gave mixed reviews to Armenia, citing human rights violations by the security police, in the presidential elections, and freedom of the press. While Georgia received some praise for improvements in citizen awareness of civil rights and in structural reforms passed by a reformist parliament, its police and security services were scored for serious problems of abuse. In Moldova, the report noted progress but also cited police brutality, harsh prison conditions, and political influence over the judiciary. Belarus received poor marks in every category. With power concentrated in President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's hands, the human rights situation got worse in 1998, the report said.

...PROGRESS SEEN IN THE BALTICS. The State Department found general respect for human rights in all three Baltic countries, although some problems remain. In both Estonia and Latvia, the report found improvement in the treatment of non-citizens, while the police and the security forces abused prisoners and detainees. In Lithuania, progress was made in fighting corruption but the police still abused detainees.

BRITAIN'S FOREIGN SECRETARY RAISES NIKITIN CASE. In his meetings with Russian officials in early March, visiting British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook praised former naval officer Aleksandr Nikitin as the first person to publicize in print the dumping of nuclear waste in the Arctic by the Russian fleet. Last month the Russian Supreme Court rejected Nikitin's appeal to drop pending treason and spying charges. At the same press briefing, Cook also announced that Britain will contribute 3 million pounds ($4,824,000) to upgrade Russia's nuclear waste storage.

SIBERIAN JUDGE OUTLAWS PENTECOSTALS. On March 2 a judge in the Siberian town of Aldan banned a Pentecostal church for violating the Russian law on religion that has been criticized by human rights groups as anti-constitutional. According to ITAR-TASS, the Aldan ban resulted from church members refusing medical help and preaching intolerance by insisting on home schooling for their children. ITAR-TASS quoted Vladimir Murza, identified as "the man who oversees Russia's Pentecostalists," as denying any connection to the Aldan church and suggesting that the case formed part of a conspiracy to discredit Pentecostals and to justify a crackdown. ITAR-TASS noted that the ruling coincided with a takeover of Aldan's municipal building by 60 Pentecostals who demanded payment for flood relief work they had done last spring. According to the Associated Press, police drove out the protesters on March 3, arresting four and taking the women and children to hospitals.

NOVOSIBIRSK SYNAGOGUE VANDALIZED. On March 7 unidentified vandals tore up the holy books of Novosibirsk's recently rededicated synagogue, broke the furniture, and scrawled swastikas on the walls, along with the letters RNE, the acronym of the neo-Nazi movement Russian National Unity. The Associated Press quoted a police investigator as downplaying the attack, describing it as "kids having hi-jinks."


By Charles Fenyvesi

Before the 1990s a Russian school staffed by independent-minded teachers could have been closed down by a volley of gunfire. Today's strategy calls for the threat of the use of guns. But when that fails, brute force is still the answer.

On Feb. 22 the crack riot police OMON tried to force its way into St. Petersburg's Open Christianity center which houses a school, a kindergarten, and a teacher-training institute. "They banged on the door and threatened to shoot us with their machine guns," school secretary Rimma Sevastyanova told the "St. Petersburg Times." But a staff of 13 adults and 27 children barricaded themselves and refused to budge until OMON left the neighborhood.

On Feb. 25 a regular police unit appeared on the school grounds and ordered everyone out of the building, Reuters reported. School director Inga Ivanovna and two other staff members blocked the main entrance. Police shoved them aside, and the three women required medical treatment for their cuts and bruises. Then the rest of the staff and the children lay down on the floor, singing and praying until the police left the building three hours later.

According to Keston News Service, the order to storm the building came from General Vlasov, head of the city administration of the Interior Ministry. In a press release, city authorities charged that the school had violated the terms of the building's lease and enlisted the support of international organizations by spreading inaccurate information.

For the past four years city authorities have been trying to reclaim the property which they donated to the Society for Open Christianity in 1991. The three-story structure, originally an army barracks, was then in danger of collapse. According to the American-based news service "Religion Today," supporters of Open Christianity in the Netherlands and the United States donated $1.5 million to restore the property which is now worth $10 million.

In the mid-1990s the neighborhood became a prime location. According to sources cited by "Religion Today," businessmen envision a hotel on the site and city officials would like to sell the property to repay political favors.

"The Russian Mafia has its eyes on the site," said one American who spent some time in St. Petersburg. "And the Orthodox Church would not mind if the school is shut down because it is ecumenical."

A prominent champion of the school was Duma Deputy Vitaly Savitsky, the American recalled. "He was assaulted by a Mafia type and warned to stop asserting the rights of the school only a few weeks before he was killed in a car crash that had all the hallmarks of a KGB-style hit," the source said. "He was a fearless proponent of democracy and religious freedom and talked about as a potential presidential candidate."

Police never explained the circumstances of Savitsky's death, the American added.

According to "Religion Today," quoting Gary Vander Heart, an American missionary who taught at the school, founders Konstantin and Inga Ivanov are "reform-minded Russian Orthodox who reach out to other denominations." About half of the ministry's members are Russian Orthodox, Vander Heart says, and the rest are Catholics, mainline Protestants, and charismatics, and the services include contemporary Christian worship, traditional Protestant hymns, and Orthodox songs. The ministry also holds monthly theological discussions.

"The evangelical ministry is considered a threat to the Russian Orthodox Church," Konstantin Ivanov told "Religion Today."

When speaking with reporters and passersby, the police surrounding the building did not hide their feelings. "Western missionaries use this organization to fight the Orthodox Church," a police officer told the press. "We will smash them."

The local press quoted the city's governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, warning officials to investigate all religious schools because they are turning out "zombified children."

Parents of the 150 children enrolled in the school took turns keeping watch at the metro entrance opposite the building. On the evening of Feb. 27 they held a service on the pavement. Those inside the school joined in the singing.

The children studied and issued daily bulletins with drawings. Folded into planes, the bulletins glided over the heads of the dozen or so police and reached passersby on the other side of the street. "We continue to build barricades," one bulletin said. "We are already specialists in this field of human knowledge."

The standoff ended abruptly on March 10. According to the "Moscow Times," OMON riot police joined city police in forcibly removing about 35 adults and children. A police spokesman told the newspaper that the situation had to be resolved quickly because the building represents a fire hazard.