Bush’s 2001 condemnation of Russia’s human rights abuses

Back then, we vigorously condemned the very practices that have now become our hallmark.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

In February, 2001, the Bush State Department issued a highly critical report documenting Russia’s human rights abuses, both domestically and with regard to its treatment of foreign detainees. I found the document randomly today while searching for something else. Among the Russian moral outrages we protested:

* Authorities continued to infringe on citizens’ privacy rights. Government technical regulations that require Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to invest in equipment that enables the [Foreign Security Service] to monitor Internet traffic, telephone calls, and pagers without judicial approval caused serious concern.

However, in response to a challenge by a St. Petersburg journalist, the Supreme Court ruled in September that the FSB is required to obtain and show court approval to telecommunications companies before it can proceed to initiate surveillance. Past practices raised questions among many observers about whether the FSB would abide by this ruling.

* Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs have attempted to educate officers about safeguarding human rights during law enforcement activities through training provided by other countries; however, such institutions remain largely unreformed and have not yet adopted practices fully consistent with standards of law enforcement in a democratic society.

* Article 21 of the Constitution prohibits torture, violence, and other brutal or humiliating treatment or punishment; however, there are credible reports that law enforcement personnel regularly use torture to coerce confessions from suspects and that the Government does not hold most of the torturers accountable for their actions.

There were credible reports that Government and separatist forces in Chechnya tortured detainees. There are also claims of abuse of psychiatry by authorities.

Institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs have begun to educate officers about safeguarding human rights during law enforcement activities through training provided by other countries but remain largely unreformed and have not yet adopted practices fully consistent with law enforcement in a democratic society. Since torture has never been defined in a subsequent law or the Criminal Code and is only mentioned in the Constitution, it is difficult to charge perpetrators.

* According to Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) report on torture in Russia released in November 1999, torture by police officers usually occurs within the first few hours or days of arrest and usually takes one of four forms: beatings with fists, batons, or other objects; asphyxiation using gas masks or bags (sometimes filled with mace); electric shocks; or suspension of body parts (e.g. suspending a victim from the wrists, which are tied together behind the back). Allegations of torture are difficult to substantiate because of lack of access by medical professionals and because the techniques used often leave few or no permanent physical traces.

* Russian authorities took measures in two “espionage” cases involving foreigners who worked with Russians and obtained information the authorities considered sensitive. In both cases, proceedings took place behind closed doors and the defendants and their attorneys encountered difficulties in learning the details of the charges.

* One “case was characterized by serious violations of due process”. . . . Indictments cited classified decrees that were made available to [the defendant]‘s defense team only at the beginning of the trial, which finally commenced in October 1998, nearly 3 years after Nikitin’s detention.

*While the President made statements about the need for a “dictatorship of law,” the Government has not institutionalized the rule of law required to protect human rights. Most abuses occur at lower levels, but government officials do not investigate the majority of cases of abuse and rarely dismiss or discipline the perpetrators.

* There were reports of Government involvement in politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya. According to credible reports, units of the Government were involved in the detention and the temporary disappearance of journalist Andrey Babitskiy in January. The Government at first denied any knowledge of Babitskiy’s whereabouts, but after considerable international pressure officials asserted that the journalist was in the custody of “local Chechens” . . . . Journalists and human rights activists believe Babitskiy was targeted by the Government for his critical reports on the conflict in Chechnya (see here and here).

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*The NGO Memorial claimed in October that the total number of detainees had exceeded 15,000 persons. Many of these persons disappeared, but the majority were bought back by relatives. Memorial estimated that the number of individuals unaccounted for was somewhere between several hundred to one thousand (see here and here and here).

* The concentration of ownership of major media organizations — already a serious threat to editorial independence in 1999 — increased during the year. . . . . Continuing financial difficulties exacerbated this problem during the year . . . Although advertising revenues began to return to 1998 levels, they did not do so completely. As a result, the media’s autonomy and concomitant ability to act as a watchdog remained weak.

* Internet experts and right-to-privacy advocates say that interagency technical regulations called SORM-2 (SORM is the Russian acronym for System for Operational Investigative Measures), which were issued by the Ministry of Communications, the FSB, the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, and other agencies present a serious threat to privacy rights, and violate the Civil Code, the Constitution, and international norms. SORM-2 is an amendment to SORM telecommunications regulations. The original SORM, issued in 1995, granted security services the power to monitor all telecommunications transmissions for investigative purposes. It required a warrant to carry out such monitoring, in accordance with the Constitution and other provisions of the law. SORM-2 extends to the FSB the same kind of monitoring power over Internet communication that it had for telecommunication, but without ensuring judicial oversight.

Internet service providers were required to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all Internet traffic to an FSB terminal. Those providers that did not comply with the requirements faced either loss of their licenses or denial of their license renewal. While SORM-2 framers claim that the regulation does not violate the Constitution or the Civil Code because it still requires a court order, right to privacy advocates say that there is no mechanism to ensure that a warrant is obtained before the FSB accesses private information. There appears to be no mechanism to prevent unauthorized FSB access to Internet traffic without a warrant.

What monsters. Thankfully, the U.S. has the moral credibility to vigorously condemn such totalitarian and abusive practices.

And in light of this, it is particularly moving to read our righteous condemnations over the past several years of those countries which failed to appreciate the need for prosecutorial independence. It seems that some particularly heinous dictatorships actually allow political leaders to shield themselves from prosecution, even when they commit crimes, by controlling prosecutors. Unfathomable.

UPDATE: From the 2006 State Department Report on Russia’s human rights abuses:

The law states that officials may enter a private residence only in cases prescribed by federal law or on the basis of a judicial decision; however, authorities did not always observe these provisions.

The law permits the government to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication only with judicial permission and prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his consent. While these provisions were generally followed, problems remained. There were accounts of electronic surveillance by government officials and others without judicial permission, and of entry into residences and other premises by Moscow law enforcement without warrants. There were no reports of government action against officials who violated these safeguards.

How did that possibly stay in the Report?

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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