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Letter from Human Rights Watch to U.S. Vice President Al Gore Regarding Religious Persecution in Russia and the Nikitin Case

March 9, 1998

Mr. Al Gore
Vice President of the United States of America
White House

Dear Mr Gore,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, the largest non-governmental human rights organization based in the United States, we extend our greetings.

We write to respectfully urge you to raise concern about Russia's human rights record with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in your upcoming round of meetings; in particular we ask you to engage Mr. Chernomyrdin on Russia's new religion law and the Nikitin case.

Our first set of concerns relates to freedom of conscience. In September 1997 Russia adopted a new law on religion (the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations) that is grossly discriminatory and that seriously contradicts Russia's constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which Russia signed in February 1997. Despite assurances from the federal government that the law would be implemented liberally, Human Rights Watch has observed an increasingly serious pattern of violations of religious freedom since the law's adoption.

Throughout the last few months religious and human rights activists have received dozens of complaints from religious associations in at least eleven provinces throughout the country about harassment by local governments. For example, they have made illegal attempts at revoking the registration of religious associations and refused to register new ones, and they have reportedly attempted to evict religious associations from Church buildings with the aim of granting the buildings to the Orthodox Church. They have also arbitrarily evicted various religious groups from public buildings where they had worshiped for several years, or raised the rent arbitrarily and disproportionately. Several religious associations have also complained about police harassment, such as searches of worship rooms and Church buildings without due cause. The federal government has taken no steps either to correct the conduct of local officials or to set right the violations.

Human Rights Watch believes that your intervention would be helpful to stop this trend. The Russian government has promised repeatedly that forthcoming

implementation instructions would mitigate or annul the most controversial aspects of the law -- in particular, the fifteen-year waiting period "new" religious communities must endure before they may register. To date, however, the government has not issued those instructions. By inquiring about the progress of the implementing instructions, you would signal to Mr. Chernomyrdin the U.S. government's interest in finding an immediate resolution to the serious human rights problems inherent in the law. We also respectfully ask you to express general concern about the increase in violations of religious freedom in Russia and to urge the Russian government to actively follow the actions taken by regional civil servants to implement the law.

Our second set of concerns relates to the case of environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin. As you may be aware, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) presented Mr. Nikitin with a sixth indictment in late February 1998. As before, the indictment is based on secret Ministry of Defense decrees and a clearly biased expert assessment. Despite the fact that the FSB's latest indictment clearly runs counter to deputy procurator general M. Katyshev's instructions of January 1997, to drop the charges against Mr. Nikitin, last week the Procurator General's office extended the investigation against him by yet another month.

Human Rights Watch believes that this latest extension testifies to a clear unwillingness on the part of the Russian government to challenge the FSB's continuous failure to comply with procedural law and the procurator's instructions; this in turn belies an unwillingness to finally bring this alarming case to an end. It indicates that the case may potentially go on for many more months. In the meantime, Mr. Nikitin continues to be severely restricted in his freedom of movement and he and his family face constant stress connected to the criminal investigation conducted against him. Human Rights Watch considers that Mr. Nikitin and his lawyers have convincingly proven his innocence. We therefore seek your intervention to urge the Russian authorities to dismiss all the charges against Mr Nikitin.

We attach a brief analysis of the discriminatory and restrictive provisions of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. We are happy to provide further details on the pattern of violations of religious freedom in Russia's provinces and the Nikitin case. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Yours sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

cc: John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State of Human Rights, Labor and Democracy

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