Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 41

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights, made public on February 25, painted a disturbing picture of abuses in Russia over the past year. At least one major human rights organization said that the assessment was not stern enough, however. The annual report focused particular attention, not surprisingly, on the excesses committed by Russian troops in Chechnya. But it also noted broader abuses committed by Russian authorities against citizens from the Caucasus region, as well as serious human rights problems in Russia’s prison system and in the armed forces.

With regard to Russia’s war in the North Caucasus, the State Department report charged that “government forces killed numerous civilians through the use of indiscriminate force in Chechnya, and security officials’ beatings resulted in numerous deaths.” Russian officials, it said, had themselves acknowledged that law enforcement officials had tortured and beat detainees and inmates. It also accused “police and other security forces in various parts” of Russia of continuing “their practice of targeting citizens from the Caucasus and darker-skinned persons in general for arbitrary searches and detention.” These abuses, the report continued, were frequently conducted on the pretext of fighting crime and enforcing residential registration requirements.

On the subject of prison life, the State Department report said that conditions in Russian prisons “continue to be extremely harsh and frequently are life-threatening.” It quoted allegations by human rights groups that some 10,000-20,000 detainees and prison inmates die in penitentiary facilities annually, some from beatings but most as a result of overcrowding. Russia’s military justice system came in for similar criticism. The report repeated charges that “hazing”–or barracks violence–continues to be a problem, though such incidents are reported to be declining. Reports of soldiers being sent to Chechnya as punishment were also noted in the State Department document.

Despite the stern words on Russian actions in Chechnya, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the report did not go far enough. An official of the organization said that it had alluded only to “allegations” of killings by Russian forces in one Chechen city and played down the “deep complicity” of Russian forces in widespread executions in Chechnya. The assessment by Human Rights Watch of the Russia section of the State Department report contrasted sharply with its evaluation of the section on China. The group described the report’s criticism of China as being “refreshingly candid about the dramatic deterioration” of human rights in China last year (AP, Reuters, February 25; New York Times, February 26).