Russia counters claims of abuse

While gaining on rebels, Moscow this week allowed a senior European official, and others, into Chechnya.

The paint at Chechnya's most notorious pretrial detention center is so fresh that it rubs off on visitors' coats.

As the Chernokozovo camp opens to foreign observers and journalists this week, there is no sign of bruises on prisoners - and barely a speck of dirt.

The new medical tent and kitchen pots appear unused. The pocked courtyard wall, which served firing squads in the past, is touched up a sparkling white. And inmates, speaking within earshot of guards, say they have been treated well.

The display is part of an apparent campaign this week by Russia to present a squeaky-clean image of its five-month-old military campaign in this breakaway Muslim republic. With stories of atrocities piling up, Russian authorities are under Western pressure to prove that troops have not grossly abused Chechen civilians, as claimed.

Timed for the visit of the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, officials showed off the refurbished Chernokozovo "filtration" center to counter claims that prisoners here had been beaten, tortured, and raped.

Among those making such claims is Chernokozovo's most famous detainee, Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky. The reporter for US-funded Radio Liberty, whose coverage from the Chechen rebel side had infuriated Moscow, was detained in January. He disappeared last month after authorities traded him for Russian prisoners of war - a violation of the Geneva Convention. Babitsky resurfaced on Friday Dagestan, in the posession of officials in the Caucasus republic, and was freed four days later at the behest of Acting President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin may have been working to put a new spin on things not just for the West, but also for Russian voters, who are expected to endorse him overwhelmingly in March 26 presidential elections. The war is popular, and Babitsky is not, but reports of atrocities are not vote-winners.

"It is no coincidence that Babitsky was freed just as Gil-Robles was here. The Russian government is changing its tack on human rights to win over foreign opinion," says Vladimir Oyvin, deputy director of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a human rights group based in Moscow. He adds, "It's not just due to international pressure. The scandal that erupted over Babitsky was embarrassing for the government. It was absolutely clear they had no legal grounds to hold him. They had to release him to prove that he was alive."

The Moscow government rejects allegations of human rights violations as politically motivated. Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry sharply criticized a new US State Department report, released Friday. The report accuses Russian forces in Chechnya of killing numerous civilians through the indiscriminate use of force, and says security officials had beaten people to death. The Foreign Ministry said the report was based on "unreliable information," and "ignored the fact that the antiterrorist operation was aimed at restoring human rights and legality in Chechnya."

Russia's campaign in Chechnya also has earned it a dubious place on the State Department's latest list of human rights abusers - alongside the likes of Sudan and North Korea.

The independent monitoring group Human Rights Watch says it has evidence of more than 100 summary executions committed by Russian troops during the takeover of the Chechen capital, Grozny, last month. The New York-based group also charges Russia with the arbitrary detention of hundreds of Chechen men. Mr. Oyvin says that reports of human rights violations in Chechnya may be on the rise in part because journalists and others have access to more areas as Russia's military wraps up its campaign. This week, the rebels' last major stronghold in the south, Shatoi, was taken by government troops. Some Russian military officials predict the full operation will end within two months.

Human Rights Watch says it has collected testimonies of ill-treatment of those in custody at Chernokozovo, 30 miles north of Grozny. Former detainees give collaborating testimonies of the rapes of men and women, beatings with various objects, and other abuses.

Babitsky, who was held there after being detained near Grozny, told reporters that while he endured truncheon blows and tear-gas fumes, some fellow prisoners were subjected to more savage treatment.

Vitali Kochov, the local prosecutor, denies such abuses occurred. "It's all lies," he says. "We're under the auspices of the Justice Ministry and everything is according to the law."

While the jail is cosmetically clean, some troubling questions are raised by the very authorities who are trying to assure journalists that all is well here. One is the fact that detainees cannot communicate with the outside world. Col. Nikolai Varavin, head of the prison's security department, says prisoners are questioned daily and cannot call family or lawyers. "They have no technical possibilities to call relatives. They are forbidden to talk on the phone without investigators' permission. They have no access to lawyers because the lawyers are scared to come to Chechnya," he says.

"My family doesn't know where I am, there is no way to get in touch with them," says a man who identifies himself only as Mogamed. He says he surrendered to authorities outside Grozny, for collaboration with the rebels.

Guards slam the cell door shut on Svetlana Kozlova, after she tells reporters she was wrongfully arrested for helping the guerrillas on Jan. 26.

Further questions are raised by a cluster of agitated Chechen women, who scream and pound at a military van carrying journalists as it pulls away from the prison. The embarrassed military press officer dismisses the women as "crazy," and orders the vehicle to continue, without stopping for interviews.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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