Yeltsin criticised over penal conditions

As he attempts another come-back after eight months of illness, Boris Yeltsin has made clear he is against any changes to the 1993 Russian constitution, the document which enshrines his spectacular powers of office.

He believes his country is not ready for such momentous moves as it muddles its way painfully and perilously towards a free-market system and democracy. So why, his critics ask, does he flout it?

Article 22 states that "no one may be subject to torture, violence, or any other harsh or humiliating treatment or punish- ment." A fine enough principle, but one which many of the multitude - more than one million people - languishing in Russia's prisons would regard as hot air.

After a two-month investigation, a presidential human rights commission has produced a report which cites a litany of appalling malpractices in the penal system, including beatings and torture.

Among the victims are the occupants of filthy and overcrowded remand prisons, who can - by a decree passed by Mr Yeltsin in 1994 - be held for 30 days without charge. Some of those charged then await trial for up to five years, says the commission, an advisory body.

The claims will add to mounting concern over Russia's failure to comply with its commitments to the Council of Europe, which it joined exactly a year ago. To mark the anniversary, Human Rights Watch/ Helsinki will today unveil a review of Russia's performance as a new council member which states that Russia "has made little progress in fulfilling its new obligations and ... in some cases flagrantly violated" them.

It cites a long list of violations, including attacks on citizens in Chechnya, executions which continued until last August, and a general failure to address "long-standing abuses" such as appalling prison conditions, and police brutality.

"Responsibility for human rights violations lies squarely on the shoulders of the government of the Russian Federation," says the Helsinki group, although it expresses "concern" that the Council of Europe has not always used "maximum influence" to secure human rights improvements in Russia, and offered membership to Moscow without extracting pledges that it would clean up its act.

If its findings on the Russian penal system are a guide, the presidential human rights commission would agree. It says inmates are regularly beaten, tortured, and have confessions forced out of them by guards.

The commission underscored its findings with a statement yesterday saying "neither domestic nor international standards", both of holding people under investigation and as convicts, are complied with. This also called on the Russian lower house of parliament, the Duma, to grant an amnesty to pension-age convicts, women with children, and minors.

Russia has by far the highest percentage of detainees in Europe, with 694 people in jail for every 100,000 citizens - nearly seven times the rate in Britain (99). By contrast, the Ukraine has 392, Spain 122 and Germany 81.

Whether this groundswell of concern will produce any results is unclear. Russia, angered by Nato expansion, is in no mood to be lectured by the West over its failure to comply with the Council of Europe commitments, whether it be through abuses in prisons or elsewhere.

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