BOSTON — THOSE democratic breezes wafting through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have helped spur ``great improvements'' in human rights practices there, says Amnesty International USA director John Healey. Thousands of East European prisoners of conscience - those detained for their beliefs or race or ethnic origin who do not advocate or use violence - have been released in the last several months.
In the Soviet Union, no more than 20 prisoners of conscience are being held, Mr. Healey says; and psychiatric wards are no longer used for them. Human rights have also gained in newly democratic Chile and Namibia.
But that's about it for the good news from Amnesty International. This month the London-based organization issued a 300-page report summarizing human rights violations during 1989 in 138 countries. It's a story of real-life violence that makes the action-packed summer movies look mild by comparison.
Much of the human rights abuse, perpetrated by governments, is directed against ethnic and racial minorities, Healey says in a telephone interview from Amnesty's Washington office. Though prodded by rebel or nationalist groups, insecure governments often reach beyond the immediate threat and subject entire minority populations to arrests, torture, and murder. Amnesty contends that governments have no excuse for violating basic human rights of citizens or others under its control.
By Amnesty's tally, prisoners were tortured in close to 100 countries. Arrest and imprisonment for political reasons continues in more than half of all countries surveyed. Calling China's recent human rights record ``bad beyond belief,'' Healey notes that Tibetan demonstrations for independence last year prompted numerous reports of torture and murder by the Chinese government and more than 1,000 arrests.
``Death squads'' gunned down critics in at least 35 countries in 1989, according to Amnesty's report. In some cases, residents of entire towns were rounded up and shot. People have ``disappeared'' or been secretly detained in more than 20 countries.
Whether or not a country is formally considered a democracy is usually less important to its human rights record than actual citizen participation in government, Healey says.
``Where people are happier with the government, there will be fewer human rights abuses,'' he says. ``I think the West uses the word democracy to give cover and solace to a lot of dictators.''
He says countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and even the Philippines are most accurately described as ``struggling democracies with poor human rights records.'' He says the whole democratic center of Colombia is being wiped out under cover of the cocaine wars.
Many of the worst abuses involve the suppression of ethnic and nationalist conflicts. ``It's the powerful against the powerless,'' Healey says. Hardest hit are such ``forgotten'' peoples as the Kurds, a large minority in at least three countries. In Iraq, thousands fled after chemical weapon attacks on Kurdish villages in 1988; many Kurds were held through 1989 as political prisoners. Seven were executed after giving themselves up under an amnesty. In Turkey, one Kurd got a seven-year sentence for defending himself in the Kurdish language in court.
Other oppressed minorities cited by Amnesty include the 260 unarmed Palestinian civilians shot dead by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories and the thousands more beaten or held without charge last year.
In Latin America, where Amnesty reports a dramatic increase in attacks by security forces on rights activists, the rights of Indians in both Guatemala and Brazil have been sharply curtailed but little noticed.
The United States, too, is criticized. Amnesty, long on a campaign to abolish the death penalty, notes that 16 prisoners were executed in the US last year. Though about the same number of blacks as whites were murdered, the report notes that the death sentence was more often imposed when the victim was white.