Assault on Russian mafia could hit innocents

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The head of Russia's security service, warned by President Boris Yeltsin last week that his job was on the line if he failed to clean the country of 'criminal filth', said yesterday an offensive against the mafia was being planned, writes Helen Womack. But he said the public should realise it will involve small violations of human rights and bring a few innocent victims.

Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, which succeeded the KGB, was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as saying during a trip to the Russian Far East that, since mobsters were employing the most brutal methods, it was inevitable there would be some 'excesses' by police who went after them. Infringements of human rights would be minimal but some would have to be accepted as a necessary evil.

Last Friday Mr Yeltsin complained in strong language about the failure of his government to deal with organised crime and said he would hold Mr Stepashin and the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, personally responsible for making ordinary Russians feel safe.

Mr Yeltsin's outburst made no immediate impact on the situation as the three-day weekend, a public holiday to mark the fourth anniversary of the declaration of Russian sovereignty, was marred by further gangland killings. Four separate shootings in Moscow alone produced a death toll of 13.

According to plans outlined by Mr Stepashin and Mr Yerin on Saturday, the police will be empowered to detain suspects for up to a month and search premises without warrants. The anti-crime programme for the next year will cost 3,000bn roubles ( pounds 1bn).

The scheme stands a chance of being effective if the rival security service and Interior Ministry can learn to co-operate, and if police manage to hold mafia bosses instead of their sidekicks who carry out their orders. The names of some gang leaders are common knowledge but police say old laws, designed for the calmer Soviet era, have hampered them in their pursuit of the godfathers.