Friday, June 27, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Torture No Longer State Policy But Still Widespread in Russia, Moscow Analysts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 27 – There is no longer a system of state-organized torture in the Russian Federation, analysts said yesterday on the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, but torture and actions demeaning the human person, which international human rights accords equate with torture, remain widespread in that country.
The AGORA Association, a Russian rights group that tracks social problems, says that these actions include various demeaning procedures and poor conditions, denial of minimal sanitary and medical treatment, failure to provide psychological support, and widespread tolerance of abusive behavior by junior personnel (
And while few of these actions rise to the level of torture as commonly understood, AGORA analysts pointed out, they nonetheless are equated to it by documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe and thus must be fought whenever and wherever they are found.
The AGORA report focuses on problems in five institutions over the past 12 months: the military, prisons, the police, orphanages, and psychiatric facilities. In the Russian military, the report points out, there were more than 200 suicides during this period, often the result of abusive behavior by commanders.
In many units, Valentina Mel’nikova, the head of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, told AGORA, “they either beat people or do not allow them to sleep or force them to go hungry.” Sometimes, she said, soldiers are stripped, tied to posts, and forced to read army regulations aloud.
Moreover, she noted that despite all the claims the Kremlin has made recently about progress against “non-standard” activities in the armed forces, “all the problems which existed a year ago remain today.”
Abuses in prisons are widespread, the AGORA report says, but collecting evidence about them is difficult given the control the authorities have over prisoners. One measure of how bad conditions are is the number of mass revolts by prisoners, three of which – at Kopeisk in May, in Rostov in June, and at Gamovsk in July 2007 – attracted widespread attention.
But another, equally persuasive to AGORA at least, is what happened after three human rights activists released a report on 40 “torture zones” in the penal system earlier this year. Instead of taking action to correct the abuses that report detailed, the authorities launched a criminal case against the authors of the report.
“As if,” the AGORA report commented, “[their] convictions would show Russians that everything in [Russian] prisons is fine and quiet.”
During 2007, 4500 criminal cases were opened against members of the militia, many of which were initiated by citizens who had been victimized by the authorized and who threatened or actually took their cases to the European Human Rights Court. But despite that progress, many militiamen continue to abuse people, especially the political opponents of the regime.
Conditions in orphanages and other institutions for children in Russia are notoriously bad, the AGORA report continues. The spread of infectious diseases there and especially widespread food poisonings are testimony to that. Administrators claim they are doing the best they can with minimal funds, but they have refused to punish any but the most junior personnel.
Psycho-neurological institutions remain a problem as well, the AGORA report says. As in Soviet times, the authorities have subjected political dissidents to forcible “treatment” in such facilities, a clear violation of human rights that more than rises to the international definition of torture.
Moreover, even those who should be in these institutions to receive medical help, the report continues, are denied basic facilities – in many such hospitals, for example, there is only one toilet for every 75 patients – or adequate food and warm clothing, all of which contributes to the suffering of such unfortunates.
The AGORA report on torture this year broadened its focus and pointed to four developments in Russia and abroad that its analysts believe have made the situation worse and may lead to further problems if they are not addressed.
First of all, the report says, the American jail at Guantanamo for those the U.S. suspects of terrorism has undercut the human rights message from the country that in the past had been “the classical international promoter” of such rights and “gives the Russian authorities a basis for justifying violations of the inviolability of private life.”
Second, with the decline in the number and size of terrorist actions in the world and in Russia itself, the position of the special services and “hawks” in other bodies has fallen, and they are interested in demonstrating their utility by moving against opponents of the regime, something that allows them “to justify the violation of human rights” in the minds of some.
Third, the failure of the authorities to bring to justice those who have killed journalists like Anna Politkovskaya or activists like Aleksandr Litvinenko has helped to “spread an atmosphere of fear within Russian society,” something that officials in various institutions exploit by demeaning those in their charge.
And fourth, the AGORA report says, the actions of regional leaders like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, to whom Moscow has given almost unlimited freedom of action in exchange for declarations of loyalty, have opened the door to human rights abuses not only in their own republics and regions but across the entire Russian Federation.

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