Russia Reversing Itself on Rights

Restrictions on Liberty Increase

MOSCOW, JAN. 25, 2003 ( Restrictions on the Catholic Church in Russia are “a cause of great suffering” for John Paul II. These words came in his Jan. 13 address to the diplomatic corps when he spoke of the difficulties facing Catholics in Russia, who “for months now have seen some of their pastors prevented from returning to them for administrative reasons.”

The Pope appealed to the Russian government to make “concrete decisions” to resolve the situation, which would be “in keeping with the international agreements subscribed to by the modern and democratic Russia.” John Paul II concluded his frank remarks by saying: “Russian Catholics wish to live as their brethren do in the rest of the world, enjoying the same freedom and the same dignity.”

The short-term prospects for the Church don’t look good. In fact, the evolution of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin is showing an increasing tendency to disregard basic human rights and democratic liberties.

Along with widespread restrictions on the freedom of religion, the media have been progressively muzzled. The latest move, reported Jan. 20 by the Wall Street Journal, came with the sacking of American financier Boris Jordan, who had been chief executive of Gazprom-Media.

This group is a subsidiary of OAO Gazprom, the state-controlled conglomerate that dominates the energy industry in Russia. Jordan will stay on for now as director-general of NTV, Gazprom-Media’s television channel, but he said he expects to be fired from that post, too.

Jordan’s position had been in doubt since President Putin publicly criticized NTV for its coverage of October’s hostage crisis, when Chechen gunmen seized 800 people in a Moscow theater, the Journal said.

Up until recently NTV had been an independent station. Then, shortly after Putin came to power in 2000, its previous owner, media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, was detained briefly on fraud charges. In April 2001 the state-run Gazprom seized control of NTV and Gusinsky’s other media holdings.

The government has also muzzled other independent media sources, The Economist reported in its Jan. 11 issue. Boris Berezovsky, who along with Gusinsky is now in exile, lost his two TV stations, ORT and TV-6. The former, according to The Economist, is now “a state pet,” while the latter was closed down a year ago.

The Economist also noted the numerous laws that restrict press freedom. Among them is a ban on the press from campaigning for or against candidates. But the law does not make it clear exactly what comes under the ban, thereby leaving the media vulnerable to government action if the authorities take a dislike to coverage. As well, broadcast licenses can be revoked after two official warnings. And raids by the FSB (the internal security service) or tax police are also common forms of pressure, noted the magazine.

Freedom House, in its “Annual Survey of Press Freedom 2002,” published in December, was critical of the Russian government. “The Kremlin continued to pressure media companies and journalists critical of the regime,” notes the report. This occurred “despite President Putin’s statement in the U.S. that he supports press freedom.”

When Gazprom took over the media group Media-MOST from Gusinsky, it not only obtained control of NTV. It also closed the newspaper Sevodnya, fired the staff of the weekly Itogi, and took over Ekho Moskvy radio, the last independent outlet of Media-MOST.

Outside Moscow, things aren’t much better. “In outlying regions,” Freedom House said, “news media are mainly dependent on government subsidies and journalists face libel suits and physical harassment intended to intimidate critics.”

Human rights activists expelled

The press isn’t alone in facing a tough time. The New York Times reported Jan. 16 that Russian authorities refused to allow Irene Stevenson, an American labor activist, to re-enter the country after a Christmas holiday visit home. She had lived and worked in Russia since 1989.

It seems that the government was not pleased with the organization Stevenson directed. The American Center for Labor Solidarity, which provided educational programs and legal advice for Russia’s unions, had recently counseled the air-traffic controllers union as it threatened to strike.

And a few days earlier the government announced that it was ending the work of the Peace Corps in Russia. Authorities had already refused to renew the visas of 30 American Peace Corps volunteers last August. Then, a day after Stevenson’s expulsion, the government announced that it was ending the mandate of the mission working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The mission had been reporting on the conflict in Chechnya.

Another recent case involved a British ecologist, who was doing research on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. The British daily Guardian on Jan. 2 reported that Jennifer Sutton May, who has lived in Russia since 1974 and is one of the four leaders of the group Baikal Environmental Wave, was visited by local FSB officers. They seized a number of computers and a list of foreign volunteers and contacts. A little later her flat was burgled and her car stolen.

The Guardian said that this was only the last of many official actions taken by Russian security services, in an attempt to hamper the work of ecologists. In December 2001 Grigory Pasko, a military journalist who revealed illegal nuclear waste dumping by the navy, was sentenced to four years hard labor for treason.

Lingering problems

In its “World Report 2003,” Human Rights Watch outlines a number of concerns over Russia. The report noted the measures taken to curtail press freedoms, and expressed particular concern over the grave abuses by Russian forces in the long-standing Chechen conflict.

The Russian army also came in for criticism for the treatment meted out to its conscripts. “Severe abuses remained endemic in Russia’s armed forces, as illustrated by thousands of complaints conscripts sent to soldiers’ mothers organizations,” commented the report.

Human Rights Watch also cited a lack of rights for prisoners in Russian jails; worries over the lack of due process in the country’s new criminal code; and violence against ethnic minorities.

Amnesty International has also noted the worsening human rights situation in Russia. The group’s Web site touts its worldwide “Campaign for Justice,” for Russia.

Amnesty International admits that conditions in Russia have improved greatly since the period of transition started in 1991. Compared to the Soviet regime there is now a much greater degree of freedom.

But it notes that “human rights violations are still widespread, and the victims have little chance of seeing the perpetrators brought to justice.” Moreover, “torture and ill-treatment are virtually routine in police stations.” Russia has ratified, but often not implemented, key international human rights treaties, states Amnesty.

Amnesty also denounces the behavior of Russian forces in Chechnya. Troops “have been responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including ‘disappearances,’ extrajudicial executions, and torture, including rape.”

Russia’s transition from Communist dictatorship to modern democracy is anything but smooth, let alone guaranteed. All the more reason for the Church and secular activists to continue their action in defense of basic human rights.

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