MOSCOW — FEDERAL Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh celebrated the Fourth of July yesterday by opening the agency's first Moscow office, which he promised will help Russia combat mafia-style crime and avert the growing threat of nuclear terrorism.
Mr. Freeh, who arrived in Moscow flanked by bodyguards Saturday for a three-day visit that culminates a 10-day Eastern and Central European tour, praised Russia for taking rapid steps to help stem the country's mounting crime wave.
``Unlike in the United States, where it took the FBI 50 years to acknowledge the existence of organized crime, the minister and the government here have moved very quickly to acknowledge the problem,'' Freeh told reporters after meeting with Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, the country's chief cop.
Freeh mentioned in particular a controversial June 14 decree issued by President Boris Yeltsin, which gives police sweeping powers to crack down on suspected organized crime members. But he said the ``very important protection of human rights has to be balanced with the protection of public safety.''
Duma questions decree
The disputed decree allows police to hold suspects for 30 days without charge and to investigate their finances. The State Duma has repeatedly asked Mr. Yeltsin to cancel it, saying it violates civil rights and Russia's Constitution.
Crime has spun out of control in Russia since the Soviet Union's demise in 1991. Gangland-style shootings, robberies, and bombings are common in Moscow, as well as money-laundering, drug trafficking, and illegal arms dealing.
Russian Interior Ministry officials have said there are nearly 5,700 organized crime groups operating in Russia, totaling about 100,000 members. Some reports say these groups have ties to both Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia.
The FBI's two-agent office, which will be situated on US Embassy premises and under the direct supervision of the American ambassador, will only act after receiving authorization from Russians. The office will primarily exchange information with Russian legal authorities about criminal activities, including possible attempts by illegal groupings to smuggle nuclear materials abroad.
In a Sunday interview with NBC television, Freeh said the risk of large-scale theft of nuclear materials by organized crime gangs in Russia posed an enormous threat to international security.
Russian counterintelligence chief Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, last week challenged these claims, and said he would press Freeh to back them up during his visit. ``Otherwise, the FBI's interest in the issue may be interpreted by the Russian political opposition as a desire to establish US control over nuclear installations on the territory of the Russian Federation,'' the Itar-Tass news agency reported Mr. Stepashin as saying.Russian Justice Minister Yuri Kalmykov said last month that the country's mafia-style gangs had stolen spare nuclear parts, but had not yet gained access to the most sensitive nuclear material.
Freeh cites nuclear risk
Freeh during his visit cited recent findings of enriched weapons-grade uranium in Stuttgart, Germany, as indicative of a serious risk.
``We want to be sure we have done everything possible to prevent such theft and diversion and avoid what would be a nuclear disaster for people around the world,'' he told NBC. ``We don't want to wait, and neither do the Russian police, for the first diversion of those materials which could be used for large-scale destruction in Russia, the United States, or anywhere else.''
In a meeting yesterday with acting Russian Prosecutor Gen. Aleksei Ilyushenko, Freeh agreed to conclude both an extradition treaty and a mutual legal assistance treaty with Russia.
``That is the practical vehicle by which we will able to exchange witnesses, evidence, bank records, and all the things which we need to do our job to protect our people,'' he said.
Later yesterday, Stepashin said he and Freeh had agreed to work together to bring to justice six Russian criminals currently living in the US. Freeh, the first FBI director to visit Russia, last week visited Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Ukraine as part of his fact-finding mission.
While in Kiev, he signed a communique on cooperation between Ukrainian and American law-enforcement agencies. He warned that Ukraine could become a transit drug zone.