Marchenko's case

WHO speaks for Russia's Daniloffs? Nicholas Daniloff can hardly complain about the support properly mobilized for him in the United States. During his initial imprisonment the television networks carried nightly interviews with his wife. The President of the United States and high-ranking government officials have intervened on his behalf.

Journalistic organizations sent cables of protest to Moscow and postponed exchange programs with Soviet journalists. This week an array of journalistic organizations met to protest Mr. Daniloff's arrest and to announce they would like to send representatives to Moscow to negotiate Daniloff's release.

There is about as much chance of the Soviets agreeing to that as there is of your average fox sending out luncheon invitations to the pursuing hounds. But it was a worthwhile gesture, and it underscores a point the Soviets find -- or say they find -- hard to understand: the independence of the American press.

When an innocent American civilian gets into trouble in a country like the Soviet Union, the outrage of the American people is guaranteed. When that American is a journalist, the ire of his fellow journalists is underlined.

There is another category of human being under oppression by the Soviets for whom far less can be done. These are the Soviet citizens who have spoken out against the excesses of their ruling regime, and who are paying for such indiscretion by being imprisoned, ill treated, and sometimes tortured.

One such citizen is Anatoly T. Marchenko, a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. He is serving a 15-year sentence for anti-Soviet propaganda. The New York Times this week published a letter from him it says was smuggled out of prison.

Mr. Marchenko says he has been abused and tortured. He has been given 15-day confinements in the punishment cell, where inmates are stripped of warm clothes, and fed every other day, in winter temperatures that drop to 14 degrees C. He says he was beaten up by guards three years ago and still suffers ill effects. He has been denied visits from his family for 2 years. He suspects that some prisoners are being subjected to special drugs designed to break the will of the more militant ones.

``The Soviet government,'' Marchenko writes, ``uses prisons and labor camps to crush human dignity by using physical and mental torture against those who oppose official ideology and policies. The Soviet government views this as its sovereign right and a purely internal affair.'' And the outside world, he says bleakly, ``does not seem able to find a way to demand that the Soviet Union live up to its obligations'' under the Helsinki Final Act. He himself, he wrote back in August, was registering his protest with a hunger strike.

If such a letter were smuggled out of an American prison by an inmate, Mike Wallace and the ``60 Minutes'' crew would be there in a flash. Newspapers would be investigating, columnists would be pontificating. And there would be a very good prospect of correcting the situation.

But Marchenko is grimly correct when he says the Soviet regime sees such abuses against Soviet citizens, on Soviet territory, as a ``purely internal affair.'' Even Mikhail Gorbachev's smile has faded when he has been taxed by Western reporters about such mistreatment, insisting it is the Soviets' business.

With major dissidents, such as the Sakharovs and Anatoly Shcharansky, the Soviets have shown themselves somewhat sensitive to adverse foreign publicity. But for the thousands of lesser-known Soviet citizens who are harassed, or imprisoned, or prevented from leaving the country, there is no such leverage. That is why it is morally imperative to keep publicizing such cases and pressing the Soviets on human rights, however irritating to the current regime. If the Soviet Union has not yet become part of our global village, man's inhumanity to man must nevertheless be a universal concern. It cannot be swept under the rug as an ``internal affair.''

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