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Watch List: September 16, 1999

16 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 35

POLITICAL PRISONER DIES IN TURKMEN JAIL... Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an investigation into the death of a prominent political prisoner in a Turkmen jail, Khoshaly Garaev. Turkmen officials claim that following a fight with other prisoners, Garaev, 37, was transferred to a solitary cell and that one day later, on 10 September, he hanged himself. "The government of Turkmenistan committed an outrageous act by putting him in prison, and his sudden death is more outrageous still," said Holly Cartner, director of HRW. In 1994 Turkmen security arrested Garaev, a Russian citizen, in Uzbekistan and brought him to Turkmenistan without the formality of an extradition procedure. The following year he was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum security labor colony on charges of planning a violent overthrow of the constitutional order. Just days before Garaev's relatives were informed of his death, they had received a letter from him expressing the hope that he would be freed under an amnesty promised by President Saparmurat Niyazov by the end of the year.

...AND HIS CO-DEFENDANT MAY BE IN DANGER. Amnesty International (AI) is seriously concerned for the safety of Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, 53, following the death under suspicious circumstances of his co-defendant and fellow prisoner Khoshaly Garaev. The two men were convicted together in 1995 on charges that AI and HRW say were fabricated, as their real crime was their association with exiled opponents of the government.

RUSSIANS DETAIN, THEN RELEASE KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER. On 10 September Russian authorities detained at Moscow's Sheremetevo 2 airport Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former Kazakh prime minister and leader of the opposition Republican Party. He was detained at the request of the Kazakh government, which pressed for his extradition. But on 14 September the Russians said they would release him. In Almaty, Kazakh Prosecutor-General Yuri Khitrin said on 15 September that humanitarian considerations--the fact that Kazhageldin had to be hospitalized with a heart problem after his arrest--prompted him to agree to the release. Khitrin claims that Kazhageldin is guilty of "abuse of authority" while serving as prime minister and of tax evasion since that time, most of which he spent in the West. But Khitrin could not substantiate the charges to the satisfaction of his opposite number in Moscow. Informed pro-Kazhageldin sources say that powerful elements in Russia's officialdom pressed for extradition, which the Kazakh government thought it could arrange. "Kazhageldin would have been the centerpiece of an anti-corruption show trial," said a source close to Kazhageldin. "But many Western leaders intervened with the Kremlin, so he was allowed to leave."

MOSCOW AWASH IN EXPLOSION THEORIES. As investigators search for clues to the origins of four explosions in Moscow and Daghestan which killed more than 250 people in the past two weeks, some officials, including Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and Minister of Interior Vladimir Rushailo, openly blame "Chechen bandits." AP reports that police focus their attention "mostly on dark-skinned men assumed to be from the southern Caucasus Mountains," and "The New York Times" wrote that on 14 September Moscow police checked the identity papers of 4,200 Caucasians. But President Boris Yeltsin has been careful in describing the enemy as "terrorists" and refrained in public from a religious or ethnic label. Yeltsin said that "terror has declared war on the Russian people," and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called those behind the explosions "rabid animals." Last month, after the insurgents' retreat, Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev threatened to unleash "a wave of terror" throughout Russia. But last week both he and the Chechen government denied any involvement in the bombings. According to "The Manchester Guardian," "nationalist sections of Moscow society are unashamedly suspicious of people from the Caucasus and many immediately held Chechens responsible for all the recent blasts." But another British newspaper, "The Observer," quoted Federal Security Service spokesman Andrei Kostronin as saying that no terrorist act in recent years has proved any Chechen involvement. In an article titled "Moscow Awash in Explosion Theories," "The Moscow Times" reported "other, even more sinister explanations" suggesting that the blame belongs to the security services trying to destabilize the country or ethnic Slavs who were paid by Chechens $50,000 per person, or pro-Yeltsin forces who would like to bring about a state of emergency and the suspension of civil liberties.

KREMLIN THREATENS LEGAL ACTION AGAINST ITALIAN DAILY. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has threatened legal action against Italy's leading newspaper "Corriere della Sera" if it continues its "smear campaign" against him. In a letter published in the newspaper on 12 September, Aleksandr Voloshin, director of Yeltsin's office, said corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were "invented." In August "Corriere" published a report alleging that Mabetex, a Swiss company, paid $1 million into a Budapest bank account for use by Yeltsin and his family. Both the Kremlin and Mabetex denied the allegations. "Corriere" said that Swiss and Russian magistrates and international financial institutions confirmed its revelations.

VILNIUS RADIO TO BROADCAST IN BELARUSIAN. The non-governmental Baltic Waves radio station has received a license to broadcast in the languages, including Belarusian, spoken by Lithuania's ethnic minorities, beginning in January, according to a Baltic News Service report on 6 September. Listeners in neighboring states may also pick up the programs, and Belarusian authorities have already protested.

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST'S JAIL SENTENCE FOR LIBEL PROTESTED. Reporters Sans Frontieres protests the one year suspended jail sentence for journalist Irada Husseinova of the Azerbaijani newspaper "Bakinski Bulvar." The sentence will be carried out if the journalist commits another offense. On 9 September, Husseinova was found guilty of "insulting the honor" of Jalal Aliev, a member of parliament and a brother of Azerbaijan's president, by calling him in a December 1998 article "king of the oil industry." In a letter to Justice Minister Soudabah Hassanova, RSF points out that imprisonment for a press offense is "out of proportion to the damage sustained by the victim" and cites the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to the effect that "detention, as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion is one of the most reprehensible ways to enjoin silence and, as a consequence, a grave violation of human rights."

INDEPENDENT SERB RADIO SHUT DOWN. On 11 September unidentified individuals broke into the studio of Radio Globus, a private radio station in the Serbian town of Kraljevo, and removed essential equipment, which forced the suspension of broadcasting, AFP reports. Editor-in-chief Alesandra Jelisijevic said that the robbery was intended to shut down the radio. The station, which cooperates with RFE/RL, has been critical of both Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his opposition, which controls the Kraljevo municipality.

UN SAYS 100,000 SERBS LIVE IN KOSOVA. On 11 September the head of the UN civilian mission in Kosova, Bernard Kouchner, said that some 100,000 Serbs remained in the province, a far larger number than initially estimated. According to the latest figures compiled by KFOR and cited by Kouchner, Kosova's population consists of 1.4 million Albanians, 97,000 Serbs, and 73,000 other minorities, including Turks and Roma, Kouchner said. "A multiethnic Kosovo is our goal," Kouchner told reporters. According to figures gathered by the Balkan news agency BETA, 218,638 people fled Kosova to various parts of Yugoslavia. Of that number, up to 60,000, mostly Serbs and Montenegrins, left Kosova during the NATO bombing. A total of more than 177,000 of the displaced found shelter in Serbia and 40,832 in Montenegro.

LITHUANIAN COURT DENIES U.S. PLEA. Ignoring the prosecutor's recommendation, a Lithuanian judge denied on 9 September a U.S. Justice Department proposal for an international medical panel to examine Aleksandras Lileikis, 92, accused of genocide during World War II. Earlier, a team of Lithuanian doctors found him too ill to stand trial; as a result, the proceedings were suspended. Lileikis was head of security in Vilnius during the Nazi occupation. "The Lithuanian people want justice served, and they want to know that they can get justice from their legal system," Alvydas Medalinskas, a liberal member of parliament told RFE/RL. "We want to see the evidence the U.S. Justice Department promised us for seven months." Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee offered a different view: "Every step taken by the court and the government has been to delay the day of reckoning for Lileikis."

HUNGARIAN COURT RULES AGAINST STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS. In Budapest, Istvan Dudas, 75, and three others went on trial on 14 September on charges of crimes against humanity during the1956 revolution. Dudas, then commander of a border guard unit, is accused of ordering his men to fire on a crowd of 1,000 unarmed demonstrators in Mosonmagyarovar. About one hundred people were killed. In June the Hungarian supreme court overruled a lower court's decision that there should be no trial for murder after a lapse of more than 15 years. The supreme court ruled that crimes against humanity have no time limit and ordered legal proceedings to begin.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Ludmilla Alekseeva offers an antidote to the despair felt by observers of the Russian scene who fear spiraling chaos in that country. An effervescent septuagenarian and a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), she predicts that Russia will achieve democracy through its human rights movement, which is gaining strength, rather than through its political parties, which have lost their credibility and have no popular following. But she is confident that despite all its present crises, Russia will become a democracy--if not in her lifetime then during that of the bright young people who are joining the human rights movement these days.

Speaking at an RFE/RL press breakfast on 9 September, Alekseeva detailed the rapid growth of her country's human rights movement and what she described as its "increasing professionalization." In 1996, she said, there were only 50 or so human rights groups in Russia's 89 regions, but now there are more than 1,200. In 30 of these regions, their number has grown so fast that local groups organized themselves to form broader associations. But unfortunately, she added, most people in Russia "don't know that they have rights and they don't know how to use their rights." That is the important niche that the human rights movement fills.

Today, half of those engaged in Russia's human rights movement have some legal training, Alekseeva said, and she pointed to the example of 28-year-old lawyer Daniel Mescheryakov, executive director of MHG. She drew a distinction between the dark Soviet past and the murky present: "In Soviet times we in the human rights movement didn't defend the rights of our compatriots because we couldn't defend our own rights. Now our officials still like to violate our rights, and they do it whenever they think they can get away with it. Our movement is attractive to people whose rights are violated. So we switched to protect the rights of our citizens, and we have the people with legal background who are in the position to defend the human rights of individual citizens."

Alekseeva has participated in the human rights movement from its beginnings, in the mid-1960s. In 1977 she emigrated to the United States, intending to serve as the representative abroad of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). In 1993 she returned to Russia, where three years later she was elected chair of MHG. In 1998 she was elected president of the International Helsinki Federation., a position she still holds.

The report MHG submitted to the OSCE Review Conference this September is devastating. MHG had called 1998 the "year of disorganization of the Russian judicial system," only to find the process continuing in 1999: The judiciary is subordinated to local authorities; mutual dependence linking all agencies involved in prosecution, from the police to judges, results in "in passing more unfair sentences than fair ones"; judges are no longer guided by the law but by the interests of local officials and corporations.

The report describes such vicious circles as police officers using torture to make suspects confess; judges accepting false evidence and convicting innocent people. Charges of torture are not investigated. At times, cases are fabricated by all those in the loop, from the police to the judge, "with the sole purpose of extortion." The report concludes: "Widespread corruption and depravity of the judicial system have become so overwhelming that there remains little place for those judges who are genuinely guided by the law."

Nevertheless, Alekseeva told RFE/RL that judges--including some in remote regions--shine on occasion, sound judicial decisions are born "despite the chaos," and progress is being made in developing "core law." In two years, she pledged, there will be human rights networks representing 60 of Russia's regions, and in three years all 89 regions will be represented. Monitoring the courts will be one of their key assignments. "I am optimistic because I work with people in the provinces," she said, "rather than with parliamentarians, who are depressing."

Alekseeva's optimism is grounded in her character, rather than in what Marxists used to insist so primly was "objective reality." But in the end, it is character that wins out, and in her case that character was shaped by experience, which included challenging the objective reality of an invincible imperial power.

"She has an ability rare in the Moscow intelligentsia of reaching out to ordinary people and those who live in the provinces," says long-time U.S. colleague Cathy Cosman. "She has worked well with trade union people, and dissidents who included not only liberal intellectuals, but Baptists and Crimean Tatars as well. She is an excellent organizer. She has no enemies in the human rights movement--and that is no mean achievement."

Perhaps it takes such a special person, raised in Stalin's Russia and come of age politically in Brezhnev's, to believe that all things are possible, including the defeat of the Soviet Union, and to keep the faith in achieving the impossible, which is what the rise of a democratic Russia seems to more and more people today.