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(Un)Civil Societies: November 5, 2007

Islam: Fostering Pluralism Could Help Ease Tensions With West

By Charles Recknagel

A Muslim girl holds a copy of a book on the Prophet Muhammad in New York City

PRAGUE, October 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Media headlines often speak of tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds in terms of religion.

The frictions can range from protesters in Brussels trying to highlight what they see as the dangerous encroachment of Islamic values into Europe to protesters in the Middle East demonstrating against what they see as insults in Western newspapers to the Prophet Muhammad.

But some observers say that one important fact is too often lost sight of. And that is that the tensions between East and West are far more often over political than religious values.

"It is probably not the values but the politics that are more divisive, and in the Islamic world there are many conspiracy ideas about the West's war on Islam, so called, and on the other hand many Westerners suspect that the Muslims are rallying against Western civilization in general," says Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Istanbul-based "Turkish Daily News." "I think that these fears, that are exaggerated on both sides, create the basic divisive point."

Michael Rubin of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute says that the distinctions between religion and politics are gradually becoming better understood in the post-9/11 world. And that is despite extremists' claims to speak and act solely in the name of religion. "In the United States, oftentimes, scholars and theologians differentiate between Islam and Islamists," Rubin says. "Islam is a religion. Islamism is a political ideology."

Many experts argue that understanding Al-Qaeda as a radical Islamist group with a clear political agenda -- the establishment of a caliphate, or Sunni theocratic form of government -- does much to help counter talk of a "clash of civilizations" that pits one world against another.

And this, in turn, can help open the way to identifying political solutions for crises which -- were they truly religious confrontations -- might otherwise have no end.

'What Unites And What Divides Us'

Rubin and Akyol were two of the panelists at a conference at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on October 30 that addressed just these issues. "What Unites And What Divides Us? Tough Questions for Islam and the West" brought together journalists, policy experts, and representatives of civic organizations from the Islamic world, Europe, and the United States. The gathering was one in a series of occasional conferences that RFE/RL sponsors on Islam and related issues (see below for full coverage).

Discussion and disagreements abounded, but many participants found common ground around one idea. That is, fostering pluralism and participatory forms of government in the Muslim world could offer hope for moderating some of the radical political parties that claim to speak for Islam. And, ultimately, that might help bridge today's sharp divides between East and West.

Akyol believes that political solutions can be found by incorporating religious-rooted parties into pluralistic forms of government. There, he says, the give-and-take of power sharing with other political groups can have a moderating effect on ideologies that initially may be intolerant of other parties.

He cites Turkey as an example. "Turkey has benefited a lot from the free market and also from democratization," Akyol says. "When you understand that democracy can give you the freedom you are looking for, the religious freedom you are looking for, you opt for democracy. You are not trying to stand against that."

Rubin also sees fostering democracy as a way to help defuse East-West tensions. He says the East must build its own open societies, but the West can help by supporting voices for change.

"One of the other dynamics that we need to break is this dichotomy between autocrats and theocrats, where either you have dictators who control the state press or official media or you have theocrats who control the mosques, perhaps with some funding from Saudi Arabia or outside sources," Rubin says. "What you need is to support the middle ground, the liberals, the reformists, and so forth, who tend to be victimized by both autocrats and theocrats because both the dictators and purveyors of an extreme religious viewpoint see a moderate alternative to be more of an enemy than the other."

(See "Islam And The West: What Unites And What Divides Us?" to listen to the panel discussions at the October 30 conference.)

Russia: 'My Only Thought Was To Escape The Torture'

By Claire Bigg

Aleksei Mikheyev was left paralyzed by police torture and his attempted escape

October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It took nine days of police torture for Aleksei Mikheyev to confess to a crime he never committed.

No longer able to stand the blows and electric shocks, he admitted to raping and killing a 17-year-old woman to whom he had given a lift in his Russian hometown of Nizhny Novgorod.

Mikheyev later retracted his confession at the prosecutor's office. So he was taken back to the police station for another round of torture. There, he managed to break free from his captors and threw himself out of the window.

"The perpetrators were convicted, those who physically tortured me. But the fact that this is the fault of the government, of the whole system, was never addressed." -- Aleksei Mikheyev

"My only thought was to escape the torture," says Mikheyev in his matter-of-fact voice. "When I jumped, I was sitting on a chair, a police officer was holding me by the shoulders, and my hands were handcuffed. I sat some three meters away from the window. I jumped so hard that I smashed through a double-pane window head first."

Mikheyev, who is now 31, broke his spine in the fall. He will never be able to walk again.

The woman he had confessed to murdering returned home the next day. She had gone to visit friends without informing her relatives.

In Search Of Justice

In a country where torture remains a pervasive interrogation method, stories like Mikheyev's are depressingly common.

What makes Mikheyev's case remarkable is his determination to seek legal redress, and his success in doing so. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor and ordered Russia to pay him 250,000 euros ($355,000) in damages -- one of the largest compensations ever granted to a Russian citizen at the Strasbourg-based court.

It was a hard-won victory. Mikheyev had to endure numerous anonymous death threats and a grueling seven-year battle with Russia's judicial system. "It was like a game of ping-pong," he says. "I would file an application for the case to be investigated, the case would be investigated, no evidence against the policemen would be found, and the case would be closed. I would appeal, and the case would once more be investigated."

In total, local investigators opened and closed the probe 23 times. Only after the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the case was Mikheyev finally able to bring his story before a Russian court.

In November 2005, more than seven years after his ordeal, a local court sentenced two police officers to four years in prison for abuse of power.

Mikheyev says the pair has already been released. But he sounds neither surprised nor particularly upset. What he most wanted, he says, was for his country's leadership to be brought to account. "The perpetrators were convicted, those who physically tortured me. But the fact that this is the fault of the government, of the whole system, was never addressed. Only the European Court ruled that the government, rather than individual people, is to blame," he said.

Thousands Of Cases

Frustrated by often corrupt and indifferent courts at home, Russians are turning to the European Court of Human Rights en masse.

Last year, Russian citizens lodged some 12,000 complaints with the court -- one-fifth of all the cases filed that year. Ill-treatment at the hands of police is one of the most frequent grievances.

Torture is so common in Russian police stations that the method used on Mikheyev even has a name: the "phone call to Putin." It consists of inflicting electric shocks through wires attached to the victim's earlobes.

There's also the "crocodile," when police pin the victim face down on the floor and pull on his limbs, or the "swallow," when the person's arms are painfully twisted behind his back. The most notorious is perhaps the "little elephant," when police strap a gas mask onto the victim's face before shutting off the air supply.

However blatant the abuse, filing a case at the European Court of Human Rights -- let alone winning it -- is no easy feat. And, as Mikheyev points out, not a cheap one either. Mikheyev says he largely owes his victory to a local rights group called the Committee Against Torture, which offered him precious legal and financial support.

Only a fraction of cases lodged with the court actually result in a verdict; the others are rejected for procedural shortcomings or lack of evidence. The tide of applications also means plaintiffs must wait years for a judgment. Mikheyev, for one, waited seven years.

But he says these difficulties should not deter victims from seeking justice. "Don't be afraid, fight for yourself," he says. "Winning is possible."

Winning his case against Russia will not give him back the use of his legs. But it has given him a new sense of dignity as well as much-needed cash to foot medical bills. Before the ruling, he was surviving on a monthly pension of less than $100.

Nonetheless, Mikheyev met his legal victory with a mix of joy and bitterness. "On the one hand, I understood that not everything in Russia is hopeless. On the other hand, I resented the fact that this had to be settled at the European Court instead of here," he says.

Has his example helped curb police torture in his city, or in Russia? Hard to say, Mikheyev says, citing the case of another young man in Nizhny Novogorod who last month threw himself out of a police station's window to escape torture.

The Committee Against Torture says charges of police abuse in the city soared following Mikheyev's victory at the European Court of Human Rights. But the committee says this doesn't mean police torture is growing. What is growing is the number of victims who, thanks to Mikheyev, now know that those responsible can be held to account.

Further articles in this series: Taking Your Country To Court and Judicial Reform Under Way, But For The Right Reasons?

Russia: Judicial Reform Under Way, But For The Right Reasons?

By Claire Bigg

Russian citizens are increasingly taking their government to court in Strasbourg

October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a televised meeting in early October, Russian President Vladimir Putin received the head of the country's Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, in his Kremlin office.

The two men agreed on the need to overhaul Russia's justice system and improve its performance in redressing violations of basic judicial and human rights. Such a reform, they said, would help unburden the European Court of Human Rights, which is constantly snowed under with applications from Russia.

"Most complaints to the European Court concern two types of offenses: violations of detention conditions or violations of judicial procedures," Pavel Odintsov, the spokesman for Russia's Supreme Court, told RFE/RL. "It would be easier for the Supreme Court's presidium to deal with the lion's share of these issues within its own, national, judicial system. This would also simplify the court's work."

The proposal broadens the Supreme Court's authority to consider cases connected to human rights abuses or violations of judicial procedures, and speeds up the process. It is currently being drafted by the Supreme Court and needs to be approved by parliament before being signed into law by the president.

But the proposed reform has met with skepticism from human rights lawyers. "In principle, I don't see anything wrong with citizens getting the necessary legal assistance in their own country," says prominent Russian lawyer Yury Shmidt. "But I know very well how dependent our justice is on the authorities nowadays. It's quite hard to even call it justice. So I don't believe any reforms in this area will prove efficient."

Shmidt says the European Court of Human Rights' frequent rebukes of the Russian government, which he says are causing "extreme displeasure" in the Kremlin, are more likely to be the true motive behind the proposal.

Mara Polyakova, another respected Russian human rights lawyer, shares this view. "Our courts don't want their judgments to be challenged, and that's the real reason why our judicial system has come up with this initiative," she says. "I have very serious doubts about this idea. I know our judges, I know their mentality, and I doubt very much that this will promote the observance of human rights."

Justice From Strasbourg

It might seem odd that this court sitting thousands of kilometers away in the French city of Strasbourg has emerged as one of the most powerful checks on Russian authorities. But lax justice and unabated red tape are driving growing numbers of Russians to pin all their hopes on the court.

In 2006, Russian citizens alone lodged as many as 12,000 complaints with the court -- one-fifth of all applications filed by the Council of Europe's 47 member states.

Predictably, the unrelenting string of guilty verdicts coming out of Strasbourg has ruffled feathers in Moscow. Rulings forcing the government to acknowledge atrocities committed by federal forces in Chechnya particularly irk Russian officials. Both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have accused the court of handing down "political" rulings against Russia.

In September, Putin signed a decree allowing the Justice Ministry to send five people to work with Russia's permanent delegation to the Council of Europe and Russia's representative to the European Court of Human Rights. The decree said the measure is meant to "enhance the protection of Russia's interests" at the court.

The Russian Constitutional Court's chairman, Valery Zorkin, in July called for legislation barring Russian citizens from appealing to the Strasbourg court before exhausting all legal avenues at home. His comments came just days after the court found Russia responsible for the murder of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, a former Chechen parliament speaker, and ordered Moscow to pay his mother 40,000 euros ($57,230) in moral damages.

Supreme Court spokesman Odintsov, however, says the current draft law won't affect the right of Russian citizens to apply to the Strasbourg court either directly or after unsuccessful appeals in Russia.

Russia has shown some measure of goodwill toward the European Court of Human Rights in recent years, including improving conditions in pretrial detention centers and prisons at the court's request. But more often than not, Russian authorities fail to cooperate.

"On the one hand, Russia always pays the money it is ordered to pay," says Bill Bowring, a professor of international human rights law at the University of London's Birkbeck College. "But when it comes to further incompliance with enforcement, that is, carrying out an investigation where there's been a failure to investigate, prosecuting people from the government who appear to have committed crimes, and changing the law in practice, Russia is simply not doing it."

Moscow Blocking Reform

Like other human rights experts, Bowring says Russia's refusal to ratify Protocol 14 -- a document intended to help the court speed up the processing of cases -- casts doubts on its stated efforts to improve its rights record and help out the overburdened Strasbourg court. Russia is the sole Council of Europe member to have rejected the document, preventing it from coming into effect.

"The Russian representative who had been at the court from the beginning was recently sacked and replaced by Mrs. Milinchuk, a career prosecutor," says Bowring, who has helped many Russian citizens take their case to Strasbourg. "I think this is all part of Russia trying to improve the quality of its representation at the court. But it looks extremely bad to be saying: 'We're going to carry out these reforms' when Russia is the one country that is preventing the court from carrying out its own reforms."

In February, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) published a report singling out Russia and Turkey as the two member states least cooperative with the court. The report cited frequent instances of harassment, coercion, and intimidation of plaintiffs and lawyers, particularly in Chechnya.

Bowring himself was deported from Russia in November 2005 on his way to monitor the trial of Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, the editor of a newspaper charged with inciting ethnic, racial, and religious hatred after he printed articles by Chechen separatist leaders. Dmitriyevsky was later given a two-year suspended prison sentence. The newspaper was published by the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, an organization monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya and helping Chechens sue Russia at the European Court.

After formally seeking explanations for his deportation from a dozen Russian state bodies, Bowring was told he had failed to hand back the second half of his landing card.

One year later, a Russian court shut down the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, ruling that nongovernmental organizations cannot be headed by a person convicted of "extremist" activities.

Further articles in this series: Taking Your Country To Court and From Electric Shocks To The European Court

Russia: Demonstrations, But No Protests

By Robert Coalson

Opposition demonstrations face increasing legal and nonlegal obstacles

October 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Early last month, 13 participants in a Moscow demonstration to mark the third anniversary of the Beslan tragedy were detained and taken to court. Earlier this month, more than 10,000 pro-Kremlin youth activists gathered in the center of Moscow to celebrate President Vladimir Putin's 55th birthday.

The two incidents are clear illustrations of the Russian state's two-pronged policy on demonstrations as the country's election season moves into high gear.

The clampdown on non-Kremlin-friendly demonstrations has been going on for over a year now, an important part of the administration's strategy for marginalizing all opposition. On September 30, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Legal Team issued a statement decrying the government's restriction of the right to demonstrate. Legal Team said that almost all opposition demonstrations in 2007 were either banned or dispersed and that the government had succeeded in associating protest in the public mind with violence and arrests. In late September, state-owned Rossia television aired a prime-time "special report" in which it was claimed that opposition demonstrators routinely provoke the police into attacking them.

Increasingly Isolated Protests

Moreover, Legal Team noted that penalties for participating in demonstrations have become more severe. While in the past it was normal to receive an administrative fine, now detainees are often sentenced to 15 days in jail following summary legal proceedings that do not ensure their rights.

The statement said detainees are rarely given access to counsel or allowed to call witnesses and that sentencing is often based exclusively on police reports. Activists with the NGO told "Kommersant" that Moscow had adopted a policy of granting permission for opposition demonstrations only in areas far from the center of town and noted that provincial cities have followed suit.

According to the activists, Moscow authorities have not given permission for a single opposition-organized march all year, authorizing only rallies in remote locations. Aleksei Kozlov, an activist with the Groza movement, told "Gazeta" that Aeroflot, Russian Railways, and other state-controlled transport companies routinely provide information about the movements of activists around the country to the police. "

At stations and airports, people who are on these lists are detained by police and questioned," Kozlov said. Legal Team expert Natalia Zvyagina told "Kommersant" that pro-Kremlin groups routinely ask for and are granted permission to hold multiple demonstrations at high-visibility locations, and that the authorities use these permissions as an excuse to deny permission to opposition groups.

Driving Opposition Underground

As traditional rallies and demonstrations become increasingly problematic, opposition figures have been forced to adopt guerrilla tactics that, while often clever, give the impression of frivolousness. "Since demonstrations and pickets have been banned, the [Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS] has developed a new technology of civic protest," SPS campaign chief Anton Bakov told on October 11. "We are moving to actions in stores and on public transport."

A few hundred SPS supporters today converged on a Moscow supermarket that is part of a chain owned by Unified Russia supporter and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Gruzdev as part of an action intended to draw attention to rising prices for foodstuffs. Of course, it is even more easily justified for the authorities to crack down on actions of this sort staged in private businesses and public-transport locations.

However, in Russia today not all demonstrations are equal. Pro-Kremlin groups -- especially the youth groups Nashi, Youth Guard, and Mestnye (Locals) -- carry out demonstrations without hindrance all over the country. Opposition leader Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov routinely face disruptive pickets and demonstrations when they attempt to make public appearances.

Last month, Nashi picketers blockaded the entrance to a resort outside Moscow where Kasyanov was scheduled to give a speech. On October 11, Nashi activists in Rostov-na-Donu staged a demonstration at a book presentation by SPS Political Council member Boris Nemtsov, handing out "dollars" from Nemtsov's "overseas protectors."

The crackdown on public demonstrations is just one of the most visible and blatantly unconstitutional ways in which the authorities are strictly controlling the political environment in Russia in order to manufacture a false consensus in the upcoming elections. Moreover, it shows how thoroughly the police and courts have been subordinated to the task of achieving the political ends of the Putin administration.

The latest Levada Center opinion poll shows Unified Russia with some 68 percent support. On October 11, Putin held a closed-door meeting with the heads of all of Russia's regions. The process of generating a landslide is under full steam.

OSCE: Member States Must Stand Up To Russia's 'Bluster'

Richard Williamson (file photo)

WASHINGTON, October 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the past two weeks, civil-society groups from across the former Soviet region have been meeting in Warsaw with member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE).

The annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting looks at how well governments are implementing their OSCE commitments to build civil society. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked the head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Richard S. Williamson, how this year's meeting went.

You're back in Chicago now after two weeks in Warsaw. Looking back over the course of the meeting, what would you say was the biggest achievement or high point?

Richard Williamson: Well, I think by its nature the high point of the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the fact that NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] from all over the world -- and especially from within the footprint of the OSCE -- can come to Warsaw on an equal footing and participate in the discussion on all the topics, which they did.

Unfortunately there was a Russian walkout, when the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society spoke and the U.S. supported the NGO's participation and expressed strong unhappiness with the Russian decision to walk out.

But the biggest thing is the opportunity for civil society from throughout the OSCE to come and share their perspectives. No country's perfect -- we all have room for improvement. But for democracy to survive, you need a strong, vibrant, civil society and Warsaw helps empower those NGOs helping in civil society throughout the region.

Did you identify any trends in civil-society development, either in a few countries or in a particular region?

Williamson: Sure, I think the antidemocratic drift in Russia continues and that crowding out of civil society continues, and that's very troubling. Since their [Russia's] new NGO law -- through the implementation of that, plus abuse of their antiextremism and antiterrorism laws -- 2,300 NGOs have been closed, most of whom are peaceful organizations that allow civil society to organize and try to hold the government accountable for the human rights commitments they've made.

Belarus, the last dictator in Europe, continues to act like the last dictator in Europe. And in parts of Central Asia there are also disturbing trends. So there are areas of concern. I think the other member states have an obligation to be "forward leaning." I think we saw some of that in Warsaw. And I think we will continue to see that through various mechanisms of the OSCE.

RFE/RL: In their closing statement, the Russians protested the inclusion in the meeting of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and said it will "consider our future relations with" the OSCE. How seriously is that threat being taken by the member states?

Williamson: Well, we had an opportunity to have bilateral meetings both with the Russian Federation representatives, as well as with the leadership of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. I think the leadership of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society is absolutely committed to advancing a freer Russia. And they won't allow themselves to be intimated. They have not been so far, and I don't think they will be in the future. The important thing, furthermore, is that OSCE not let itself be intimidated by the bluster from Moscow.

The Russian Federation is a [signatory] of the Helsinki Accords and a large number of subsequent OSCE commitments dealing with human rights, rule of law, and democracy, and the Helsinki process commits every one of the 56 member states to have a right to examine other countries' fidelity to those commitments and it's important that the other countries of the OSCE stand up for those standards, whomever might be challenging them. And to the degree that the Russian Federation is failing to meet those standards, we have an obligation to speak out. And I think at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting and in other venues we've got to continue to do that and we will.

RFE/RL: In its closing statement, Kazakhstan acknowledged the weakness of its internal political opposition but said it "can't change votes." It also reasserted its "full right" to head the OSCE in 2009, arguing that its leadership role would advance democracy not only in Kazakhstan, but in the region as a whole. What was the response to that argument?

Williamson: Well, what I told the Kazakh delegation in our bilateral meeting, and what we've said elsewhere, is we welcome Kazakhstan's aspiration to be chairman in office. The chairman in office has to abide by OSCE standards and Kazakhstan certainly would have to make progress to meet those standards before they would be an acceptable chairman in office.

We think it's important for Central Asia to become fully engaged and for those countries in Central Asia that have lagged to accelerate their compliance with the commitments they've made.

So overall, we think their aspiration is good, we made it clear -- both in our meeting with Kazakhstan and others -- that the United States could not support their chairmanship in 2009 at this point because they have to make more progress.

You were in Warsaw for two weeks during this meeting. You must have heard or seen some extraordinary things, or been inspired by someone you met?

Williamson: I had lunch with the head of the Moscow Bar Association [Genrikh Reznik], who had criticized the Russian Federation government. During a wide-ranging luncheon -- where he raised concerns about the United States, also raised concerns about the United States' tactics sometimes with the Russian Federation -- he also said to me: "The fact that the Russians respond so violently to the OSCE means that it causes them discomfort. And the degree to which the OSCE causes discomfort to the antidemocratic drift in Moscow is encouraging, and it represents what this session is about, which is to try and make sure that everyone has the benefits of human rights and democracy."

In fact, the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Commission [Dzmitry Markusheuski] said to me: "The position of some governments should be stronger. It's not a request for kindness to say that the participating states should meet their commitments, it's a demand for governments to honor their commitments." And I think those words, of two active leaders in civil society in their respective countries are encouraging, and it also is encouraging that the OSCE's at least making some contribution to advance the standards upon which it was founded.