WASHINGTON – Russian customs officials seized documents concerning Chechnya owned by Amnesty International sparking criticism by the Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (known as the Helsinki Commission). The latest incident comes on the eve of President Bill Clinton’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today condemned the abuse of power by Russian customs officials and called on President Vladimir Putin’s customs authorities to return the documents seized from Amnesty International’s Russia researcher Mariana Katzarova. Ironically, Katzarova was en route to a seminar on “Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights in the North Caucasus” at the invitation of the Russian Government, according to Amnesty International. “By seizing these documents, without any likelihood of probable cause, Russian customs officials have added weight to speculation that the country’s leadership may indeed be returning to the old tactics of the Soviet Communist regime,” Chairman Smith said. “This is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of abuse, particularly surrounding the conduct of Russian forces in Chechnya.”
“I call on Russian officials to immediately release the Amnesty International documents in order to prove to the Helsinki Commission, Amnesty International and the global community at large that President Vladimir Putin is truly committed to bringing an end to the most basic human rights abuses which are so prevalent in the country today,” Chairman Smith said. “Additionally, customs officials should implement procedures to ensure that such a blatant abuse of power is not repeated and make those procedures known to the public.”
The seizure of Amnesty International documents came within days of the Russian police raid Thursday, May 11 on the Media-Most headquarters during which armed agents carted off boxes of tapes and documents. The news agency had criticized some members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, as well as the government’s conduct in the continuing war in Chechnya. The raid sparked questions about Putin’s commitment to protecting human rights, in particular the right of free speech in a country struggling to build a democratic system.
In an effort to determine the extent of human rights abuses under Putin’s new regime, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing last week during which witnesses testified that human rights in Russia are definitely in retreat under his leadership. Chairman Smith and other members of the Helsinki Commission heard testimony from Igor Malashenko, First Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of Media-Most and President of NTV in Moscow.