GOVERNMENT officials assert that the worst vestiges of the Stalinist police state have been erased. But those billed as Russia's last political prisoners claim there are still people held in labor camps for opposing Communist Party policies during the Soviet era.
Under a decree issued by President Boris Yeltsin in January, the last 10 remaining political prisoners were released Feb. 7 from a camp known as Perm-35, government officials say. But five of the newly freed inmates insist that Russian gulags remain home to dissidents sentenced under Article 64 of the Soviet legal code, a catchall clause concerning high treason that is used by the Communist regime to silence critics of the state.
"There are more political prisoners in Russia, so we can't consider ourselves the last political prisoners," said Viktor Makarov, a former KGB agent who was accused of passing classified information to Western governments. "We should do our utmost to free all political prisoners."
The five spoke at a news conference Tuesday. The next day Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said in a speech in Geneva to the United Nations Human Rights Commission that he favored the creation of a special international police agency to monitor human rights conditions worldwide.
"We realize nobody is perfect," he said, "but the Western countries have progressed further toward implementation of fundamental human rights, and we must catch up by learning in practice the difficult art of democracy and freedom."
The newly released prisoners declined to give exact figures on the number of political detainees in Russia, but suggested they could number in the dozens. They also said Georgia, Tajikistan, and other republics of the former Soviet Union are still holding some political prisoners.
The five seemed reluctant to discuss their confinement, but said life at the Perm-35 camp was full of deprivation, adding they spent long periods in isolation. Several said they were suffering from long-term health problems caused by the brutal conditions in the camp. Only in December, when the camp came under Russian jurisdiction following the Soviet Union's collapse, did life improve.
"Concerning our conditions, that's in the past," said Vladimir Potashev, a former researcher at Moscow's prestigious USA-Canada Institute, jailed for opposing the Soviet Union's stance on nuclear-weapons reduction in the early 1980s.
"In the future," he continued, "I hope the new legal code under consideration by the Russian legislature will ensure that the rights of convicts will be brought closer to the rights of citizens."
The detainees' opinions varied on the Russian government. Mr. Makarov, for example, said Mr. Yeltsin was not much better than the communists who jailed him.
"These people [the Russian government] are continuing the same old policies in a concealed form, using different means and different slogans," said Makarov, who served 4 1/2 years of a 10-year sentence.
Igor Fedotkin, convicted for trying to hijack a plane, suggested his release was a cynical ploy to gain more credits from the West.
But Mr. Potashev said he believed Yeltsin's reforms were genuine. "There are changes that I see that are permanent, and it gives me spiritual strength," he said.