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Watch List: August 26, 1999

26 August 1999, Volume 1, Number 32

MOSCOW BANS INTERVIEWS WITH CAUCASUS INSURGENTS. Russia's Ministry for Press, Television, and Radio Broadcasting, set up less than two months ago and sparking concerns about state media control, warned the heads of television networks that broadcasting interviews with Chechen "gang leaders" is forbidden, the TV station "Ekho Moskvy" reported on 17 August. First Deputy Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii charged that while "the gangs" in the Caucasus are trying "to change Russia's territorial integrity by force" and wage "a massive propaganda war," Russian TV companies are not presenting appropriate "journalistic commentary," thus "airtime is effectively given" to the insurgents. In a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asked for the immediate cancelation of the ban, noting that the ministry's "current effort to control the content of television news coverage and the introduction of prior censorship under any circumstances violate all of Russia's international obligations to guarantee press freedom." CPJ also asked Yeltsin to use his influence to end censorship and travel restrictions, imposed in both Daghestan and Chechnya, and to seek the release of journalists held captive in the area.

MOSCOW MAYOR LUZHKOV CHARGED WITH CLOSING NEWSPAPER... The respected "Kommersant-daily" newspaper accused Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's office of arranging a shutdown of its editorial offices, using the pretext of violations of fire regulations. The closing of the daily, recently taken over by business tycoon Boris Berezovskii, who is an intimate of President Boris Yeltsin, is widely perceived as related to the upcoming election campaign. "Kommersant" Director Leonid Miloslavskii said he was "totally sure" that "people close to the Moscow government" organized the shutdown. He added that the paper was not against the mayor, who is running for president, but that "for Luzhkov, those publications that do not openly support him are his enemies." Deputy Mayor Boris Nikolskii denied any connection with the closure which prevented the printing of the 24 August issue of the newspaper.

...AND TRYING TO STOP A JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES CONVENTION. Though the contract had been signed and the lease paid many months ago, Moscow city authorities tried to stop Jehovah's Witnesses from holding their three-day convention there this past weekend, church spokesman Judah Schroeder told RFE/RL. "For weeks they held us in suspense as to what they would do to bar us," Schroeder said. "And we could not get a hold of Mayor Luzhkov." But after city officials failed to show for a final meeting on 19 August, the day before the convention was scheduled to open, Jehovah's Witnesses went ahead with their plans. Then in the afternoon the following day, Saturday, the stadium received a phone call of a bomb threat, and 15,000 believers, most of them Russians from the Moscow area, had to clear out. No bomb was found, and the convention continued Sunday. Speaking to AP, city officials denied that they tried to stop the convention.

ANOTHER MASS GRAVE OF KOSOVO ALBANIANS DISCOVERED. The bodies of hundreds of Kosovar Albanians are piled into mass graves in Prishtina, according to Dr. Marios Matsakis, a Greek Cypriot forensic pathologist who observed the opening of one trench with at least two layers of bodies and identified seven other trenches while on a fact-finding tour for Physicians for Human Rights last week. The recently filled trenches are on the north side of the city's largest cemetery. Locals suspect that the regular individual graves that dot the site were used to help camouflage the mass graves. The UN war crimes tribunal, responsible for identifying such sites, told Reuters that it had been planning an investigation in the next few weeks, following eyewitness accounts of the burial of more than 200 bodies. On 23 August, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said that in nine weeks the 17-member British forensic team had exhumed the bodies of more than 260 Kosovar civilians, including women and 21 children, in mass graves. He disclosed that at the request of Louise Arbour, the outgoing war crimes tribunal prosecutor, the team will stay.

UZBEK TORTURE VICTIMS SENTENCED TO PRISON TERMS. In what the New York-based Human Rights Watch called "an appalling example of political persecution," on 18 August an Uzbek court sentenced six men to prison terms ranging from 8 to 15 years for participation in a "criminal society"--the opposition party Erk banned in 1992--and for insulting the dignity of President Islam Karimov. Each of the six defendants testified that he had been repeatedly tortured. The methods included electric shocks, beatings with batons, and plastic bags which temporarily suffocate the victims. Under such coercion, all six signed self-incriminating statements and several declared their guilt on television. Though the authorities barred local and international observers from attending the trial, one defendant, the nationally known writer Mamadali Mahmudov, smuggled out his testimony. Four of the men convicted were extradited by the Ukrainian government in March.

SHANGHAI FIVE TO FIGHT SEPARATISM, FUNDAMENTALISM. At a summit in Bishkek on 25 August, the leaders of Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan committed themselves to clamp down on separatist groups operating on their territories, according to a Reuters report. During the two-day summit, host Kyrgyzstan battled hostage-taking infiltrators, whom Kyrgyz officials identify as members of Tajikistan's Islamic opposition and Tajik authorities characterize as Uzbek Muslim militants on the run following their bombing attacks in Tashkent in February.

KYRGYZSTAN RE-REGISTERS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE. The Kyrgyz Justice Ministry has finally re-registered the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), according to RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau. The government revoked KCHR's registration in September 1998, after its members had criticized the planned referendum on amendments to the country's constitution. On 19 August KCHR chairman Ramazan Dyryldaev said that the Justice Ministry also withdrew the registration certificate issued to an organization formed by members who broke away from KCHR and registered a rival body with the same name in April 1999.

JAILED BELARUSIAN DISSENTER REFUSES TO ASK FOR PARDON. In an open letter to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Mikhail Chyhir, dissident leader and ex-prime minister of Belarus, demanded to know the charges that have kept him in pre-trial detention for more than four months. Earlier, Chyhir declined to write a penitent letter to the head of state whose term expired on 20 July. Instead, Chyhir expressed regret that he had trusted Lukashenka in 1994 and agreed to lead the cabinet. "I regret that I gave in at first to your words--you seemed so sincere--about your desire to make the people of Belarus happy," Chyhir wrote. "You have violated the law egregiously." Chyhir vowed that he would not ask for Lukashenka's pardon even if he had to spend years in prison.

ABA HONORS BELARUS HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER. Leading Belarusian civil rights attorney Vera Stremkovskaya received the Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association on 10 August. Each year ABA honors a foreign colleague who suffered reprisals for civil rights work. "This award recognizes the extreme risk lawyers like Stremkovskaya face when standing up for fundamental rights," said Robert O. Weiner, of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, a New York-based NGO.

* UPDATE * Belarusian law enforcement agencies have made no effort to find Yuri Zakharenko, former minister of the interior, who disappeared on 7 May, charged his wife Olga and their daughter Elena at a press conference on 10 August. They said that the Prosecutor General's office informed them that it is premature to bring a criminal case against Zakharenko's abductors as the evidence is insufficient that a crime has been committed. Oleg Volchek, chairman of the Public Committee on the Disappearance of Zakharenko, said that police barred his committee from distributing Zakharenko's photograph, took no interest in evidence gathered, and failed to interview witnesses to the abduction.


By Charles Fenyvesi

The Roma have lost their battle for recognition as political refugees, but they have gained ground in publicizing their deepening plight in Central Europe.

In several European Union countries, governments decided that Roma who flee Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are looking for economic opportunity, rather than escaping political repression. Despite the powerful argument presented to a number of world leaders by organizations such as the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), suggesting that the asylum-seekers face mounting skinhead violence and numerous forms of social and economic discrimination because of their race, the governments approached--Finland, Britain, and Belgium--have shut the door and are returning the refugees to their countries of origin. The governments hope that the rebuff will discourage Roma asylum-seekers in the future.

West Europeans "have tightened their fortress and will keep migrants out," Claude Cahn of the Budapest-based ERRC told RFE/RL. "But the governments in Central Europe are embarrassed, and Western pressures on them have increased." At the same time, Cahn added, the East and Central European press has been quiet about the few Slovak Roma who were admitted to Britain as political refugees, winning their right to stay on appeal.

The Roma have achieved one important objective: Western European governments and supranational institutions have begun to criticize publicly the former communist countries where the collapse of communist industrialization put Roma unemployment often above 90 percent. For instance, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for a study of the steps needed to help "the difficult situation" of the Roma. In West European capitals there is growing awareness that things are getting worse for the Roma, and the issue of helping them is now on the agenda of various EU and OSCE forums. Financial and programmatic assistance are under discussion.

In an OSCE meeting in Vienna in early September, Max van der Stoel, High Commissioner on Minorities, is scheduled to submit a detailed study of the Roma. His evaluation of official Roma policies in Central and Eastern European countries seeking EU membership is said to be negative. Moreover, local governments in Italy and Spain are likely to come in for sharp criticism. The need to alleviate Roma plight may also figure during the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November.

For the past several years, the United Kingdom was the principal European magnet for Roma asylum-seekers. According to UK statistics, from the Czech Republic alone 515 citizens applied in 1998, and the number jumped to 590 in the first seven months of this year. Even though British officials insist that each case is carefully considered on its merits, "zero acceptance rate" is the phrase they use to characterize their evaluation of the applications. It is assumed that most, if not all the applicants are Roma, though the British government says it keeps statistics only in terms of citizenship, not ethnicity.

Across the Atlantic, Roma refugees fared better. Over the past two years, Canada granted political asylum to hundreds of Hungarian and Czech Roma, with many more requests pending.

However, what gained space on the front pages of newspapers across Europe was the case of planeloads of Slovak Roma flying out of Bratislava, Prague, and Budapest and applying for political asylum upon landing in Helsinki (see "End Note" of 15 July 1999). A few days later, on July 5, with the number of applicants rising over 1,000 and more planes on the way to Helsinki, the Finnish government reimposed a visa requirement for Slovak citizens, which promptly stopped the exodus. By early August, Finland had rejected some 300 asylum applications without granting a single one. Repatriation may begin momentarily.

Nevertheless, to some observers, the exodus to Finland was a success precisely because it attracted international attention to anti-Roma discrimination more effectively than any previous action. A rejection of asylum applications might have dampened the spirits of some Slovak Roma who had fled in the hope of breathing free in Scandinavia, but their larger community scored a rare political victory. Perhaps now governments and supranational institutions will finally study anti-Roma discrimination in schools, police stations, courts, and the workplace, and devise programs that address grievances that have so far elicited only polite expressions of official sympathy.