Council of Europe set to expel Russians

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The Council of Europe yesterday voted to suspend Russia, becoming the first Western organisation to start making political sanctions in protest at Moscow's human rights abuses in Chechnya.

In some of the most highly-charged scenes witnessed in a normally low-key assembly, representatives even came to blows following a fierce defence of Moscow by one Russian delegate. No country has been suspended in the 51-year history of the council, and the attempt - the first of its kind since 1960 - is a considerable embarrassment to Russia, which was admitted in 1996.

However suspension has to be approved by ministers from the 41 countries involved, who normally take decisions by consensus. One diplomat said last night that it is unlikely the threat will be carried through.

A spokesman for the British Government said: "We want Russia to fulfil the criteria set out by the Council of Europe but we do not want them suspended. We hope there is another way of achieving the same goal.

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe was set up in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and co-operation in post-war Europe and is not connected with EU. The last move to suspend a member was in 1960 after a military coup in Greece but the regime in Athens pulled out of the council before the final decision could be made.

Turkey was suspended from the parliamentary assembly from 1981 to 1984 after a military takeover, but it was not thrown out of the council.

Yesterday's vote, which prompted a walkout by the Russian delegation, calls on the Kremlin to end the abuse of human rights in Chechnya, "immediately" or face suspension. That was seen as a more helpful formulation for the Russians than wording discussed earlier which would have set a deadline for Moscow to call a ceasefire or start peace talks.

Before the vote - passed by a two-thirds majority - Gadzhy Makhachev, a Russian delegate from Dagestan, denounced the Chechen rebels, telling the packed chamber: "These people are bandits. Russia did not want this war, it was the people of Chechnya who wanted the war." Minutes later, as he left the chamber, Mr Makhachev exchanged punches with theChechen representative, who had heckled him, before security guards intervened.

Lord Judd, who led a recent fact-finding mission to Chechnya, was one of many speakers who rejected the Russian denials. He said: "I find it unbelievable that our governments have so far not found a way of referring some of the allegations to the court of human rights. This is feebleness at the beginning of the 21st century."

Most Russian speakers urged the assembly to withdraw its suspension threat, but one delegation member said he thought Moscow needed a lesson from the rest of Europe.

"It is obvious there have been human rights violations in Chechnya," said Russia's Sergei Kovalyov, a leading human rights activist. "The most severe sanctions should be taken against my country," he said, to loud applause.