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Watch List: November 26, 1999

26 November 1999, Volume 1, Number 44

RUSSIANS TORTURE CHECHENS. Russian troops and paramilitary police torture Chechen civilians in interrogation centers known as "filtration camps," according to an investigation by Britain's "Electric Telegraph." First used in Russia's 1994-96 campaign, the centers are mud pits covered by wood, and victims are at times hung from the roof by handcuffs. The report, pieced together from interviews with Chechen refugees now in Ingushetia, quotes Aleksandr Petrov of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch who mentions "several infamous filtration camps in Grozny, Mozdok (North Ossetia), and Pyatigorsk (Russia)" where "dozens and dozens of people were tortured to death." The name "filtration camp" comes from the Russian claim that they "filter out" terrorists. "But the victims are normally innocent civilians," the "Electric Telegraph" writes on 21 November.

RUSSIAN FORCES ATTACK HOSPITAL IN CHECHNYA. On 1 November Russian forces attacked a Chechen psychiatric hospital 15 miles from Grozny, killing its chief doctor and wounding three others, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation released on 23 November. The hospital, home to 30 patients, harbored no soldiers, its staff members insisted. "The attack is a grave breach of international humanitarian law," said Holly Cartner of HRW.

CHURCHES SCORE IN MOSCOW COURT, BUT MANY MAY SHUT DOWN. Challenged by the Yaroslavl Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and the Glorification Pentecostal Church in Khakassia, on 23 November Russia's Constitutional Court released its decision upholding the controversial clause in the 1997 law requiring religions applying for registration to show documented proof of their presence in Russia for more than 15 years prior to 1997. But the court also ruled that this clause would not apply to congregations that were registered before passage of the 1997 law or to congregations that are part of an already registered "centralized religious organization." As a result, congregations of some religions, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Pentecostals, should not experience difficulty when applying for registration. Nevertheless, many other minority religions face "serious obstacles," Judah Schroeder of Jehovah's Witnesses told "RFE/RL's Watchlist." "At best, the ruling is a partial victory," he added. "But the losers are those churches that have not been able to get re-registered and who have not been able to prove their existence for 15 years." Judge Valeri Zorkin of the Constitutional Court affirmed Russia's commitment to standards of international law, which define religious freedom as an inalienable human right, and acknowledged the authority of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. Interviewed by Keston News Service, Andrei Sebentsov, the Russian prime minister's special advisor on churches, said that at least 12,000 of the more than 17,000 religious organizations in Russia are threatened with "mandatory curtailment of their activities."

MOSCOW THREATENS TO CLOSE THOUSANDS OF NGOS. "Russian officials are on the verge of shutting down thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which failed to meet a bureaucratic registration requirement, in what activists said on 22 November is an attack on human rights groups," the English-language "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. A 1995 law required NGOs to reregister by 30 June, but the Ministry of Justice rejected the applications of many, including such leading organizations as the Glasnost Foundation and the Advocacy Center for the Environment and Human Rights. The daily quotes Yuri Dzhebladze of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights as saying that those rejected are "inconvenient to the authorities."

PATRIARCH DENOUNCES WESTERN ELECTION PROCEDURES. At a press conference on 20 November, Patriarch Aleksii II of Moscow and All Russia warned candidates entering the election campaign against using "the negative experience of the West where candidates often seek to destroy their opponents morally and psychologically." The head of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that candidates remember that "the whole world is looking at Russia, and the country has always been known for its spirituality, righteousness, and patriotism."

OSCE SUMMIT FOCUSES ON CHECHNYA. At last week's summit in Istanbul, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) focused on Russia's war against Chechnya, and Belarus did not receive as much criticism as expected for its Soviet-style government and its control of the news media. In his speech, de facto head of state Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose original term expired on 20 July, invited ridicule by denying human rights violations and accusing Poland of having the police beat up workers and peasants and Lithuania of holding elderly people as political prisoners. On the issue of the war in Chechnya, Lukashenka was Russia's only supporter.

BELARUS OPPOSITION, CONGRESS CONDEMN LUKASHENKA POLICIES. "Lukashism" -- the dictatorial theory and practice of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- threatens both the democratic transformations across Eastern Europe and the security of Europe. That was the message two leading members of the Belarusian opposition delivered at an RFE/RL briefing on Capitol Hill on 17 November. Anatoly Lebedko, a deputy of the last legally elected parliament, and Pavel Zhuk, publisher of the independent newspaper "Naviny," described Lukashism as a blend of fascism, communism, chauvinism, and populism that could become the largest export from their country to Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Rep. Sam Gejdenson (Democrat-Connecticut) replied that the West had been right to help remove nuclear weapons from Belarus because "A Lukashenka with nuclear weapons would have been worse, but a Belarus without Lukashenka would be better." A day earlier, Gejdenson introduced a Congressional resolution to express "strong opposition to the continued egregious violations of human rights and the lack of progress toward the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Belarus."

UZBEK WOMEN PROTEST ARRESTS OF KIN. On 18 November in Tashkent, about 40 women gathered outside the mayor's office to protest the incarceration of fathers, husbands, and sons, according to Human Rights Watch. "It was the first protest of this scale in repressive Uzbekistan in nearly two years," the report added. One woman explained to HRW that the imprisoned relatives were not criminals but Muslims who recited the five daily prayers. They were all charged with violating the same article of the criminal code protecting constitutional order. The women's request to speak to the mayor was declined. Instead, a busload of police and soldiers in camouflage uniforms surrounded the women and escorted them out of the building. Plainclothes policemen followed the protesters as they went to the nearby metro station.

KAZAKHSTAN ARRESTS PLOTTERS SUSPECTED OF RUSSIAN SEPARATISM. Twenty-two people, 12 of them Russian citizens, were arrested recently on suspicion of preparing a separatist coup in eastern Kazakhstan, which has a sizable Russian population, a senior Kazakh security official revealed on TV on 19 November. Viktor Kunin of the National Security Committee disclosed that the suspected plotters had an arms cache and planned to set up a "Russian land" by seizing the regional governor's office and security buildings in Ust-Kamenogorsk.

**UPDATE** Belarusian authorities have been silent on the progress of their investigations into the mysterious disappearances of four prominent citizens this year: Viktar Ganchar, deputy chairman of the opposition parliament known as the Supreme Soviet, who disappeared on 16 September, along with his friend Anatol Krasovsky, a businessman; former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka who disappeared on 7 May; and former Central Bank President Tamara Vinnikova, who on 8 April disappeared from her apartment where she had been held under house arrest. Prior to their disappearances, all four individuals were under round-the-clock police surveillance.

BRIEFS BASHKORTOSTAN. On 20 November, the Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Bashkortostan issued a decree canceling the broadcasts of two Russian television programs as violating election laws, according to "RFE/RL's Russian Federation Report." At least one of the banned programs was critical of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who leads the Fatherland-All Russia alliance, which lists among its candidates Bashkortostan's president, Murtaza Rakhimov, as a prominent member. BELARUS. Ales Belyatsky, director of the Vesna-96 human rights center, was arrested on 18 November. Along with many others, he is to stand trial for his role in the organization of the 17 October Freedom March. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA. On the fourth anniversary of the Dayton peace accords, human rights are "at a low level," reports Ivana Drazenovic of the independent news service AIM. "The groups in power whose political concepts had led to the war are still expected to voluntarily give up on their successful projections of privately-owned totalitarian statelets." KAZAKHSTAN. On 23 November, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev agreed "to strengthen cooperation on cracking down on ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism," Chinese state television reported. On a five-day state visit to China, Nazarbaev heard Chinese officials express concern over Muslim separatism in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. RUSSIA. The Federal Security Service (FSB) is again charging environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin with espionage in the St. Petersburg City Court. Last October the court sent the case back as "too vague." ...On 18 November in Primorskii Krai, Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko shut down the independent radio station Lemma, which had given airtime to his opponent, RFE/RL reported. UZBEKISTAN. Komil Bekjanov, younger brother of exiled opposition leader Mohammad Salih, has disappeared while in state custody, and family members, who have tried to get news of him for four months, fear for his physical safety, according to Human Rights Watch. YUGOSLAVIA. Serbian courts are trying several hundred Kosovar Albanians who were arrested during the NATO bombing, the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center reports. The charges are offending the constitutional order of Yugoslavia and taking part in a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. According to Reuters, Petrit Berisha, one of six ethnic Albanians at a Belgrade trial, pleaded not guilty and accused the police of torturing him to obtain a confession. The defendants face up to 20-year prison terms.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Last week's summit meeting in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted its strongest statement since 1990 condemning "violence and other manifestations of racism and discrimination against minorities, including the Roma." The heads of state and government also committed themselves "to ensure that laws and policies fully respect the rights of Roma...and, where necessary, to promote anti-discrimination legislation to that effect."

It appears that the flight of 1,069 Slovak Roma to Finland this past summer focused OSCE attention on the plight of the Roma, as did the escape from Kosova of the great majority of the estimated local Roma population of 100,000.

At the same time, observers of European Union immigration policies rule out any improvement in the prospects of Roma applications for political asylum in Western Europe. "They are economic refugees, and Fortress Europa is battening down the hatches," one highly-placed advisor to the British Conservative Party told "RFE/RL Watchlist." "In Britain and elsewhere in the European Union, the Roma are seen by the electorate as sponges on the welfare system." Here and there, there might be a few judges who take a compassionate position facing an exceptional case, the adviser allowed. But he dismissed any chance that immigration authorities in Britain and elsewhere in the EU might soften their opposition toward granting political asylum to Roma, even if conditions worsen for the Roma masses in the eastern part of the continent.

David Chirico, who teaches the Romany language at the University of London, is pessimistic. "EU governments compete [to see] which one will be the least hospitable to Roma," he said. He added that at the moment Britain is still one of the most hospitable countries, as Roma waiting for their asylum applications live in houses rather than refugee camps, and they can usually earn a little money doing odd jobs such as washing cars.

But, Chirico emphasized, new British legislation now debated may well have "catastrophic consequences," forcing local governments in small towns and in rural areas to pay most of the cost of maintaining those applying for asylum. The current British emphasis on "streamlining the application process" will also reduce welfare payments, and the result will be the automatic and speedy rejection of all asylum applications.

"No British politician wants to be known as a friend of the Roma," Chirico said.

The Conservative advisor, Chirico, and others concerned with EU refugee policies agree that EU governments will press the countries of the East to improve Roma life in offering job programs, employment, and educational opportunities. "If a country wants to join the EU, it will have to prove it is doing its utmost to help Roma," said Amnesty International's Alex Anderson, who deals with Eastern and Central Europe.

The countries already under pressure are Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But, observers say, the considerable weight of the EU bureaucracy will descend on Hungary and Romania as well, and there must be progress soon on a wide range of issues from ending discrimination in schools to harsh punishments for hate crimes.