Minorities bear brunt of police crime clampdown: The use of 'pass laws' has upset human rights groups, writes Helen Womack in Moscow

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ELDAR ABASOV, an Azeri fruit trader, was being questioned by a Russian Omon special police officer at Moscow's Cheryomushkinskaya Market last Thursday. I showed my press card and asked if I could observe the interview. The policeman quickly handed back Mr Abasov's documents and stalked away. 'Your newspaper just saved me from being harassed again by those black-shirts,' the trader said.

Mr Abasov, a middle-aged former school teacher who brings melons, pomegranates and spices up to the Russian capital in order to earn a living, had a valid passport, a temporary Moscow residence permit and a return air ticket to Azerbaijan dated 23 October. Despite this, he said, he had been detained and robbed by police who claimed to be cracking down on crime.

'Three days ago, they took me in a van to Station 110 on Leninsky Prospekt. They said I had a knife. Of course I did. I use it for cutting the melons . . . They treated me like a dog, like a prisoner of war. Hands behind head, face the wall. For two hours. They beat me: I've got bruises on my backside but you don't want me to drop my trousers to show you, do you? They never looked at my documents properly. They weren't interested in that. I had 200,000 roubles (pounds 132) in my pocket. They stole it. Then they fined me 700 roubles and let me go.'

Sergei Salykhin, the deputy head of Station 110, said: 'These people know what to do in such a situation. If they have a complaint, they can go to the prosecutor, who is an absolutely neutral authority.'

The Commandant of Moscow, Alexander Kulikov, who has been enforcing a state of emergency since Boris Yeltsin routed his hardline enemies in two days of fighting earlier this month, said there was no ethnic bias in what has become a general sweep against gangsters. 'I do not divide people by nationality,' he told a news conference. 'All are equal before the law. If my men behave roughly, heroes or no heroes, they will be disciplined.'

Non-Russians and human rights groups doubt this, however, after numerous reports of people from republics within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) being abused by Russian police.

The embassies of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have complained about harassment of their citizens. The Memorial Society, which used to concentrate on digging up examples of repression under Stalin, is now keeping a file on contemporary police violations. Helsinki Watch has spoken out, specifically mentioning the cases of six Central Asian Tajiks, four of whom were beaten up and one of whom had his refugee identity papers torn up.

On Wednesday, the English- language Moscow Times reported that it had obtained a written traffic police order telling officers to target vehicles driven by 'persons of Caucasian nationality'.

The police admit that of 14,000 non-Muscovites detained, 5,000 have been deported, either back to provincial Russia or to republics further afield. Officers are relying on old Stalin-era propiska laws, intended to prevent mass migration from the impoverished countryside to big cities.

Anyone who does not have a propiska or residence permit can only visit a city temporarily and must register with the police. The system is being abolished in Russia but Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, has kept it for the capital, and has urged Muscovites to inform on neighbours whom they suspect of living here illegally.

The executive director of Helsinki Watch, Jeri Laber, wrote to Mr Luzhkov arguing that his use of the propiska laws violated an agreement on freedom of movement between former Soviet republics and was cruel to thousands of refugees from war-torn areas such as Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

'The Moscow propiska system mainly affects individuals from the Caucasus or Central Asia,' he said in his letter. 'Justifying the system by invoking the need to fight crime effectively equates entire ethno-national groups with criminals and amounts to collective punishment against such groups. The discrimination inherent in this approach to fighting crime violates Article 34 of the Russian constitution and Article 2 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.'

Mr Luzhkov was unmoved, however. He said that after the state of emergency ended (it is due to do so today), he would probably introduce an entry visa regime to prevent those expelled from returning to Moscow. As for the markets, they might offer fewer 'exotic fruits' in future but 'honest traders from Tambov, Lipetsk, Bryansk and other (Russian) towns will arrive with good products and will sell traditional Russian food'.

If Mr Luzhkov carries out his threat, Muscovites will face a diet of potatoes, beetroot, cabbage and pickled cabbage. But they don't care. Because some Caucasians are involved in crime, they blame them all and welcome the police action. 'It's just a pity this state of emergency can't be permanent,' said Vera Vladimirovna, a pensioner looking for something affordable on the few stalls left at Cheryomushkinskaya Market.