by Mark Waller
(IPS) HELSINKI -- Human rights are under increasing attack in Russia, civil society activists warned.
Russian authorities pay lip service to civil society but are wholly unconcerned about human rights, Tanja Lokshina from the influential Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) told a packed public meeting in the Finnish capital.
The Moscow Helsinki Group is the oldest Russian human rights organization. Its creation on May 12, 1976 laid the foundations for a new stage of the human rights movement in Russia that came to be known as the Helsinki movement. The movement brought together human rights activity in the former Soviet Union with the international struggle for the observance of human rights.
The MHG stopped functioning in 1982 after its numbers were reduced to three as a result of arrests and forced emigrations. That year saw the creation of the International Helsinki Federation, which continued the work begun by the MHG, and played a significant role in obtaining the release of political prisoners in the former Soviet Union.
The MHG was reactivated in 1989. The group continues to carry a strong voice now for human rights within Russia. The Finnish connection with human rights in Russia remains strong.
Lokshina was among a group of MHG activists visiting Finland this week to voice their concerns over what they see as the destruction of democracy and the rule of law in Russia.
"Russian human rights defenders do not enjoy the sort of support they once did in the West," Lokshina said. "Since Sept. 11, when Russia became a respected member of the war on terrorism, our situation has significantly changed for the worse."
Democratic gains in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union are now being systematically dismantled, Lokshina said. "The last four years have been a setback for democracy. The Russian regime is eliminating all independent democratic institutions and forces."
The process began in 1999 with the launch of Russia's second war against Chechen militants, she said. "That republic is now a region where violence has no limit, human rights are blatantly violated and where arbitrariness and impunity reign. Chechnya is a forgotten war, ignored by the European Community and the Council of Europe."
But Chechnya is only a more violent expression of what is happening in the rest of Russia, because independent voices are being silenced all over the country, she said.
"For many years Chechnya has been a testing field for human rights violations. Russian police officers serve in the republic on rotation, going there for fixed terms, then returning to their own areas and bringing with them the experience of uncontrolled and unpunished violence," she said.
Lokshina said that the military, law enforcement and the secret services have increasing influence on all processes in the Russian state. "The strengthening of the role of those structures is directly linked to the war in Chechnya."
Chechen writer Islam Elsanov said that on orders from the Kremlin, Russian forces are systematically eliminating Chechens of military age. "Some 3,000 people have been officially reported as having disappeared, but the unofficial number is far higher."
Elsanov who now lives in exile in Norway said Russian military authorities regularly abduct people from their homes in Chechnya and hold them until their family or friends pay ransom.
"If no ransom is paid within a week, or at most a month, the victim is severely maimed," he said. "If more time goes by the victim won't be seen alive again."
Elsanov called on governments to wake up to what is happening in his homeland. "Russia is conducting genocide in Chechnya," he said.
Environmental activist Alexander Nikitin, a former naval officer, told the meeting that Russian leadership has no time for civil society or political opposition.
Nikitin made headlines in 1996 for revealing details of nuclear accidents involving the Russian navy, and the radioactive contamination it was causing. He was subsequently charged with spying. Until 2000 when the charges against him were dropped, he was Amnesty International's best-known prisoner of conscience.
"Environmental and ecological organizations in Russia include hundreds of thousands of supporters, and they strongly support human rights defenders and demands to end the war in Chechnya," Nikitin said.
But civil society is being ignored and denigrated by the political leadership, and environmental issues too have been written off the political agenda, he said.
Nikitin sees a straight choice. "Either humiliation, or we concentrate on the next parliamentary elections in 2007 and create a united political opposition."
March 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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