Torture is still common in Russia, says Amnesty

Torture, abuse of prisoners and violations of constitutional rights persist in Russia, more than five years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, Amnesty International said in a report released yesterday.

The London-based human rights group said that members of ethnic minorities, notably Chechens and other people from the Caucasus, were particularly vulnerable to harsh treatment when held in police custody.

Amnesty criticised the Russian authorities for keeping in force certain laws from the pre-1991 Soviet era which, it said, encouraged abuses and conflicted with international standards. The report also observed that some post-Communist legislation, adopted with the ostensible aim of fighting organised crime, also tended to lead to the violation of civil rights.

"Under the guise of fighting crime, the Russian Federation has expanded the powers of security and law enforcement agencies to the detriment of constitutional rights, and members of ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable," Amnesty said.

According to the report, conditions in some Russian prisons are so grim that they can be described as "amounting to torture". In most large pre- trial detention centres across the country, inmates are reported to have died from lack of oxygen.

At one overcrowded prison in Novokuznetsk, in the Kemerovo mining region of western Siberia, 11 prisoners died of heat stroke in July 1995, the report said. Temperatures rose to 51C in cells that were designed to hold 10 people, but were actually crammed with as many as 25.

Describing human rights abuses in the Russian-Chechen war, which broke out in December 1994, Amnesty noted the use of electric shock, hostage- taking and rape as a form of punishment against villagers suspected of supporting the Chechen rebels. It documented cases of torture and ill- treatment by both sides.