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RIA Novosti, March 25, 2004

Press Conference with Russian Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin

Moderator: Good day, colleagues, and welcome to our press conference. Vladimir Petrovich, we have played host to you many times, albeit in a different capacity, as deputy speaker of the Duma, co-chairman of the Yabloko Party, president of the East-West Bridges Foundation. And this is your first time that you have given a press conference as the chief Russian ombudsman. Today we will discuss your first month in this new job. We would also like to hear you speak about the internal and external aspects of your activities and your trip to Strasbourg.

Lukin: Dear colleagues, I hope you don't mind if I remain seated, as otherwise I will be further away from the microphones. Yes, my colleagues, and I call you colleagues, because I have been a member of the Journalist Union since 1965, and I have been asked to speak to you because it is interesting to hear how the work of the new ombudsman begins. I've been told that ombudsman translates as "messenger", but over here this post is called upolnomochenny (authorized official). In some places he is called commissioner. For example, Alvaro Gil-Robles who is the European ombudsman is officially called "Commissioner".

I think that I will break with my usual tradition of immediately taking questions and answers, I think I should tell you something about the nature of my job, as you'll ask anyway. Then I can take any of your questions. I was approved by the State Duma on February 13, but started work a little later because some time was needed to officially introduce me to the staff. So I have actually been working for about a month.

What have I managed to find out and do during this month? First, thanks to the efforts of my predecessors, I discovered that I was in charge of 176 people. Your first reaction is probably that this is quite a lot. Perhaps, this is so, but not very much so. I have talked with my old Czech friends, including some parliamentarians -- we had a Senate delegation over -- and they told me that in the Czech Republic which has a population of about 9 million the ombudsman has a staff of 60. This is more on per capita basis than our staff. This is not to say that I am advocating the idea of having a large staff. I was in fact initially surprised that it is so large, but when I learned more about the situation I discovered – and as you know the office of ombudsman gets a lot of complaints from all over the country, all regions - that the publicity over my appointment had generated a significant increase in the number of complaints. People write letters and personally come to the ombudsman's office.

While previously my predecessors got about 1,000 complaints a month, that figure has jumped to 3,300. I attribute this increase to the considerable publicity over my election to this job. I would like to hope that the novelty will wear off a bit and the number of letters will go down, but I don't think it will drop to the former figure. Indeed, the press has noted that some of the queries that we launch make a difference. This is true. During the past week alone I can mention 11 major queries which have been met. So there is a lot of work to be done and qualified people are needed to sort all these complaints out. Some of the complaints have to be sifted, but most of them require additional work. This is not just about reading them. I insist that every reasonable complaint should get a clear-cut response.

What is the shape of our staff? It consists of workers in diverse spheres, primarily former employees of the law enforcement agencies and lawyers. I think there is a slight preponderance for people from the law and enforcement agencies. But here is the paradox. On the one hand, the law on the ombudsman says that he himself recruits his staff and can restructure it as he sees fit. But, as is often the case with our legislation, it contradicts the law On the Civil Service. As the Office of Ombudsman is a constitutional office, members of staff are civil servants and civil servants are heavily protected against the risk of being fired or transferred to other jobs. This is a hindrance because every ombudsman, of course, has a different idea of the kind of people he wants to work with. This was a problem that arose immediately. And it has to be solved with an
eye to greater efficiency, but on the other hand, without forgetting about the interests of the people.

So it would be wrong if we started our internal work by disrespecting the rights of the citizens who work there. So this is a dilemma I have to resolve. Nevertheless, the top executives have to a large extent been replaced and this process will continue, not in the sense that everyone will quit, but in the sense that people will join us who are better equipped for managing the staff. On the whole, the apparatus is doing a pretty good job when it comes to ensuring redress of people's violated rights. But I think there is a bias in this direction and reacting to the complaints of citizens whose rights have been violated.

But there is a problem with the other aspect of the ombudsman – developments in society and preemptive reaction of the ombudsman to events. Some urgent issues crop up, and I must say that in about 80 percent of the cases I have tried to react to the problems that crop up almost every day without the help of my staff. This is an area where our collective work requires improvement, in terms of a rapid reaction.

Links with non-governmental organizations of human rights activists have existed, but they have been rather loose. We are working vigorously to restore these links and make them more active. Over this month I have held regular meetings with our leading human rights champions, with leaders of human rights organizations. We have agreed to meet in the future not in our office but somewhere in a more private and simpler place as used to be the case in the human rights community to pursue quiet discussions without respect for rank but rather as old friends, of the problems at hand.

Yesterday we had such a meeting, which was primarily devoted to amending legislation on some important issues, including the law on the ombudsman. We will continue doing this on a regular basis. I think this will be a pleasure for the commissioner and the human rights champions themselves.

Relations with the press are also a problem, as it is up to you to judge whether the performance of my predecessors was good or not. I think that they made a serious contribution to this work but that their relations with the press were incomprehensible. That is why I would like to make the following suggestion if you are interested. Everybody has to work, and not only the press - I do not advocate meeting with the press every day and repeating the same thing five times in a row. But we could meet once or twice a month, including here, if you don't mind. And I would tell you about the specific things that we have accomplished, what still remains to be done and what are the obstacles. I think we would both benefit.

My chief impression from one month of work is that in the country a serious and logical system should be established for out- of-court legal defense. I realize that the office of the commissioner and the authorized official himself is not the only symbol of legal defense. But as regards the out-of-court, unofficial legal defense - which has to do with the authorities and the opinion - as the oath of the commissioner says, not only compliance with legislation but also adherence to one’s conscience and justice are key. This refers to notions that have on the whole been in short supply.

Such a system of legal defense by the state is perfectly necessary. In the meantime one observes in this case some chaotic trends, as we have the federal ombudsman and federal authorized representative. The law on the authorized representative includes a provision, stipulating that commissioners can operate in regions. In other words we can have regional commissioners, but their rights are not clear. The regions should define the rights of their authorized representatives.

I think this is not right, as this breaches, or even perturbs, the country’s single legal space. Constitutionally, we have a single legal space in the country and it is a different matter how we implement it. And it has to be implemented.

This is also true of other authorities such as the prosecution, among the tougher power ministries, the Interior Ministry and so on. But these are law and enforcement agencies. In human rights, strangely enough we have 27 ombudsmen in 89 or now 88.5 regions, considering the semi-unification of one region of Perm. That is why this process must be completed somehow. And it can be completed in two ways: by changing the legislation to replace the phrase "can be established" - which assumes that they don’t have to be established - by the phrase "shall be established", which is about the commissioners and all ensuing consequences.

Moreover the problem of human rights and other issues comes under the joint jurisdiction of the the Russian Constitution which refers to the role of both federal and regional ombudsmen, a federal centre and region. So this has to be done jointly. And we prepared the question and yesterday discussed it with informal ombudsmen. This involves proposals to change the existing legislation. Now we will be defending these proposals in the Duma, and we need to defend them in other places in the current situation in the country. We have been working hard on this issue.

I adhere to the following idea, which is also held by many other people. There should be one single system for protecting human rights. It should be interconnected not in the sense of a hierarchy but interconnected in terms of joint jurisdiction. I am not opposed to the election of ombudsmen in the regions. But they should not be completely dependent on the regions.

If a person is dependent on only one agency, he is already dependent. So he should not depend only on regions, but also on the federal centre. Legislation should define the proportions of this dependence.

We are working on this problem now, the problem of a single legal space. Legal education is another key aspect of a single legal space. My predecessors accomplished something in this area. Our people are working quite well here. Brochures are being published and lectures are read: so people are trying to achieve whatever they can.

But these are isolated instances. Frequently, we complain that in Russia there is a poor level of legal awareness, that people are not aware of their rights. How can they learn their rights? People have to be educated. This should be one of the main types of education in school. One can argue over the usefulness of the education, the justification of teaching people Christian culture or Muslim. This is important. I think that it will be good if people know more about these subjects. Most importantly citizens should be aware of their rights. As citizens they should also know their duties. So far such education is abstract.

To enable the next generation of Russians to clearly know their rights, the structure of the country, their role and duties necessitates the inclusion of such a topic in their studies as social science or another subject, in other words the introduction of a legal education system.. There is a sense of hopelessness over legal education, as we are not trying to overcome that hopelessness ourselves. From generation to generation we don't have such education. It was clear why this was the case in the past, but now there is a clear delay in the process.

Now we are working on a program - based on the program we will hold discussions with the Ministry of Education and all other departments concerned and actively participate in developing such a program. It is absolutely binding - it should be one of the first programs. It is the basis of all the rest. Without this people cannot become citizens.

I said that one could achieve this goal with regional ombudsmen. If this fails, if a change in legislation is not agreed upon, one could act in a different way. One could then establish the institution of representatives of the federal ombudsman in the regions. This is a vertical scheme which I would say is quite rigid, and I would personally prefer the first one but in any case a legal framework should be implemented here.

I would say that our rapid response to disturbing developments in St. Petersburg and Leningrad region represented one of our major specific achievement this month: a large number of prisoners had gone on a hunger strike. We sent our representatives there. They met with the prisoners and their relatives and of course with prison authorities.

In the afternoon we will meet with the GUIN leadership to sum up the results of our investigation. GUIN authorities conducted their own investigation. We will compare the results and see where we agree and where we disagree. And we will certainly inform the press about our conclusions. We are not going to swing fists or accuse anyone. It's a very serious long-standing problem. We will cooperate. However, there are two forms of cooperation: one is joint work, and the other is opposition whenever necessary. We will use both forms to do our job and ensure the rights of this category of prisoners as required by law.

Certain changes have been made here. It will soon be possible to achieve the minimal Council of Europe standards that require 4.5 meters per prisoner. We are moving toward this goal quite energetically. However there are very serious problems too, including the treatment of prisoners, including the use of torture, violence, etc. We have to assume a very clear, coherent and firm position on this. And we will.

I would also like to speak about some international aspects of our work in the past months. We held a meeting of regional ombudsmen in Moscow to discuss all these issues in greater detail. And then we all accepted European ombudsman Gil Robles' invitation and traveled to Strasbourg where we spent two and a half days. We attended a seminar with the European ombudsman and the Council of Europe leaders. We met with Secretary General Schwimmer, European ombudsman Alvar Gil Robles, PACE Chairman Schneider, and the Chairman of the European Court of Human Rights. We discussed the role of ombudsmen in the context of a common European legal system because we are seeking to build a single legal space in Europe.

Sometimes we become focused on one or two topics and fail to notice progress on specific issues: legal, professional, terrorism. We cooperate very actively on these issues. A whole network of such cooperation has been created. We also cooperate vigorously in the European Court of Human Rights, even though there are problems too.

So we discussed all these things. Our opponents focused on such issues as mass media and their insufficient freedom, room for maneuver, especially in the context of elections. There were questions about Chechnya, as our opponents are still as concerned as ever about this issue. I explained to our partners, and I will explain it to you that the human rights commissioner does not deal specifically with one region only. But we all want information about human rights violations in Chechnya to be clear and credible and objective. And I will seek to ensure that.

Secondly I will seek to ensure that a regional human rights commissioner is appointed in Chechnya as soon as possible and that he is an authoritative and respected person. This is very important to me. Actually it's not very important to me as to Chechens themselves and the whole of Russia, in view of the fierce confrontation between the separatist mood of some of the population the emotions of the federal authorities All information from there, y from one side but from all sides, should be thoroughly verified because in war as in war.

I think the creation of the post of regional ombudsman would be the best solution in this case. But that will require an amendment to the Chechen Constitution. We need a parliament to ensure the passage of such an amendment. There are plans to elect a parliament. The sooner it is elected by normal democratic standards, the better for everyone: for Moscow, Grozny and for our relationship with the rest of the world.

This new parliament will have to point an ombudsman as soon as possible. It should be a person with authority in all spheres in Chechnya and on all major points of confrontation. Then we will have an institution that will constantly respond to violations not in terms of PR or something else but in terms of substance. And I will be ready to actively cooperate with this ombudsman.

We also discussed in Strasbourg the program signed in January this year by the Foreign Ministry on behalf of our executive authorities and European ombudsman Gill Robles. It's a program of joint work of the Council of Europe and Russia in Chechnya. It has several provisions. I am sure you all know this program. If not, you can obtain a copy from the Foreign Ministry.

This program consists of several practical, and I think normal, provisions. But it has not been implemented for technical reasons. It was supposed to be implemented under the auspices of the president's human rights representative in Chechnya, Mr. Sultygov, but he resigned or was dismissed, whatever.

To cut a long story short, the program was at loose end. Our Foreign Ministry and European structures asked me to become its coordinator to ensure its implementation. I agreed. However, this does not mean that I will implement this program. That is impossible. This must be done by relevant agencies. But I could coordinate its implementation so that we could not only argue but also cooperate on issues where have agreed to cooperate.

Therefore I will take some effort shortly to ensure implementation of this program. I have already reached agreement with Gil Robles and our ambassador in Strasbourg Orlov to modernize the program, as it has to start in April and not January. At least implementation should start as soon as possible. In my opinion, it will help us do practical work, instead of trading in recriminations behind each other’s backs.

So now you know what has kept me busy. I will tell you about future work in two months if you don't ask me questions now. I am ready to answer any questions.

Moderator: Before we take questions, let me read a message we received through the Internet. A lawyer from the village Malaya Purga in Udmurtia, Yuri Nikitin asks: "Where can I regularly get information about the work of the human rights commissioner in Russia?"

Lukin: We will issue press releases and send them to regions. We will certainly do that.

Moderator: Will you release them through the Internet?

Lukin: And it will be available on the Internet too. Thank you for your question. In fact, it is not question but a request. We will put the system in place and we will let you know.

Q: I would like to know your assessment of the current human rights situation in the Chechen Republic.

Lukin: Could you introduce yourself?

Q: My name is Pavel Koryashin, political desk at Interfax. What is your opinion on the plans of the Chechen authorities to dismantle the two remaining tent camps in Ingushetia in the near future?

Lukin: I told you that I assumed my new duties a month ago and it is hard for me to draw serious conclusions for individual regions. Such information that I have on Chechnya is clearly not enough for drawing conclusions. I have a strong suspicion that the information that I have is politically biased, from different sides. This is obvious when you read this information with an experienced eye.hirdly, I have the impression that there is less violence and human rights abuse than was noted some time ago -- the mopping-up operations and so on. That is what human rights activists tell me. I now rely on the opinion of human rights activists whom I respect.

At the same time, they think that new forms of human rights violations have emerged on all sides, including a third front. Here I am referring to new Chechen units created by the current president of the republic, Kadyrov.

But all these violations are of a more restricted character and it is hard to verify them from Moscow.

I think that there must be human rights monitoring in Chechnya. It should take place on the ground in Chechnya, on a permanent and systematic basis. And that is why the position of a human rights commissioner for Chechnya should be created as soon as possible.

Q: My second question concerned the tent camps for refugees from the Chechen Republic. The Chechen authorities have often spoken lately about plans to dismantle the two tent camps. What is your comment?

Lukin: You mean the camps where Chechen refugees live?

Q: Yes. Two such camps remain.

Lukin: I haven't got around to these issues. In general, I don't like talking about issues I don't know well. I didn't have time to look at them carefully. I know that Ella Alexandrovna Pamfilova was in charge as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission under the Russian President. She has visited the Chechen refugee camps. She has drawn some conclusions. She put these conclusions to the President and her conclusions, as far as I know, are that certain violations need to be rectified and the process of the movement of Chechens from the camps back to Chechnya should be more transparent and voluntary. This is her point of view as far as I know. But I haven't got around to this issue myself.

Q: Radio Liberty. You said that the conditions for prison inmates in St. Petersburg was one of the more concrete matters you considered during the past month. Did you look at other concrete issues? This past month has brought a big crop of tragic events. Did you look into them?

Lukin: Well, they happen every day and we are talking not only about tragic events, we are talking about overt human rights violations that are stipulated in the Constitution. Of course, the ombudsman's staff cannot replace the Ministry for Emergencies, and it needn't. But I have told you that I find a certain weakness in the way our staff work in terms of prompt reaction to such sudden events. We will try to change that by building a certain structure. We are thinking about it now. In terms of my own initiatives, I would like to mention the initiative connected with the conflict in the editorial office of Novoye Vremya, which led to suspension of the publication of Novoye Vremya. We called on lawyers to look into this issue. It was a very complicated and confused property conflict. I put these questions before a court, the court of arbitration, I think, the Prosecutor General's Office and some other agencies.

I recently got a reply from the prosecutor's office which recognized serious irregularities. They will be put before a law court. Irregularities, above all, by people who, unbeknownst to the management of Novoye Vremya, while nside Novoye Vremya, signed some kind of agreements that led to this conflict. And these people will be prosecuted.

But my task as an ombudsman is not to punish the culprits in the conflict, but above all to ensure publication of the magazine that is a trademark of Moscow, more so than all sorts of upstarts that are nine day wonders. And I will not desist in my attempts to make sure that the magazine continues to be published. So that is another example.

I can give you any number of examples. People come and demand to be seen by the ombudsman. This happens every day. If I received visitors all the time, I wouldn't have time left for anything else, including this meeting with you. But I still have to receive some of the more obvious cases.

The day before yesterday I saw several people: each of them told me his or her story. And we discussed a series of questions. A woman came to see me, whose son had died in Chechnya and she had problems with apartments although she is entitled to an apartment in any location she chooses:, there is a decree to that effect.

They offered her an apartment in Lipetsk and she asked for one in Moscow. There are many such problems. I would bore you if I started to tell you about all of them. We take action on all these problems: we try to take measures within our jurisdiction.

Q: Ekho TV Company. I think the State Duma is going through the third reading of a law whereby people detained on suspicion of terrorism could be detained for 30 days. What do you think? It would be interesting to know your opinion.

Lukin: It's an interesting question and we are looking into it. I don't want to make any rash statements without looking into this situation carefully. The situation is not as simple as our press would have us believe. There was an article in Moskovsky Komsomolets. You see, there is a provision that a person can be detained for two days and then charges have to be brought against him before he can be detained as a suspect for a longer period.

It is a complicated system, and it is only at the next stage that a detained person becomes an accused person. It is a fairly tricky system. I would say that this draft law causes questions and at the same time, in my opinion, it is necessary to find ways of toughening the struggle against terrorism - and the need to find ways to toughen the struggle against terrorism is not in doubt in the present circumstances – that preserve basic human rights. It should be perfectly clear that if a man is not detained under terrorist articles and is not suspected of terrorism, he should not be subject to this procedure.

We are now trying to resolve this issue legally and either submit a law, postpone the draft law at the level of the Federation Council or the President or supplement it with something that would draw a very clear line of distinction between toughening the struggle with terrorism and ensuring the validity of all those guarantees accorded to citizens prosecuted under other provisions.

Q: Vladimir Petrovich, did they discuss the Khodorkovsky case in Strasbourg? Are his specific rights being violated? What is your view about the YUKOS affair and Platon Lebedev. Have there been any human rights violations?

Lukin: In answer to the first part of the question, nobody asked me these questions in Strasbourg. Secondly, my position is as follows. The matter is being heard and is to be decided in court. As far as I am aware, the lawyers of the suspects have submitted an application to the human rights court in Strasbourg. I did not verify that information but I know it from the press reports.

The Strasbourg court accepts applications only from people whose rights have been violated, in other words on procedural grounds. During the judicial procedures the authorized representative has no right to influence such cases or intervene. Thus the commissioner can intervene before the judicial procedures, before they have started if human rights are being violated, and he can also intervene after the court has been recognized to be wrong from the procedural standpoint and the legal standpoint that some procedural things have been seriously violated. There were no complaints to this effect in the office of the commissioner and that is why the question must be decided in court, whereupon the question will arise as to whether it was a fair trial in terms of legal procedural things. This is the substance of my position. I cannot tell you anything about the merits of the charges, as I did not delve deep into the substance of the accusation.

Q: You said you intend to develop some regional structures of the ombudsman. I hope the current apparatus of the ombudsman has already established relations with the Near Abroad republics, including the Baltics. Do you think you will continue the work to defend the rights of Russian-speaking minority in these countries? And this is true of course not only in regard to the Baltics but also in regard to all other countries, including in Kosovo where recent developments revealed the serious humiliation to which Christian minorities have been subjected.

Lukin: That meansRussia's ombudsman must directly defend the interests of Russian citizens, including those outside Russia. In addition, he must defend the interests of non-citizens of Russia living in the Russian Federation, as the complete name of the institution is "Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation".

I interpret this to mean that this everybody in the Russian Federation, both Russia's citizens and non-citizens, and Russia's citizens outside the Russian Federation. Without a doubt, we will defend the citizens of Russia outside the Russian Federation with the means at our disposal.

As regards our compatriots, we will doubtless express our opinion on this question which is what we have been doing in Strasbourg. Incidentally in Strasbourg they agreed with us, including the European ombudsman, Mr. Gil Robles. He said that he has been working and will continue to work actively to defend the rights, especially the rights of our compatriots in the Baltics to education.

When in the Baltics about one and a half weeks ago there was a big assembly of teachers of Latvian schools sharply protesting against the curtailment of education and attempts to close Russian schools in connection with cuts in the teaching of Russian language, I sent them a message of greetings where I expressed my point of view on the matter.

Developments in Kosovo do not fall within my direct purview, but I think I have the right to express my opinion on legal issues, which I did by making an official statement on that score and you can see that statement.

Q: Russia Journal. In Russia rights are laid down in the Constitution, such as the right of movement and the right to freely choose a place of residence. You are probably aware that in Kuban there are such nationalities as Meskhetian Turks who have for centuries and years been deprived of a residence permit. Recently the American government gave them the right to choose American citizenship. Is this a violation of their right to live in Russia? Does it mean that the Russian leadership turns a blind eye to their move to another country? What is your attitude and why are such things happening in Russia?

Lukin: My attitude to this is as follows. Firstly, the rights of the Meskhetian Turks have been sharply violated in Georgia which expelled them to Russia, temporarily as they said. This is, of course, a gross violation committed by the Georgian authorities at that time. Secondly, I do not regard as good the situation of the Meskhetian Turks now living in Krasnodar Territory. Of course, one needs to investigate very carefully all issues related to the violation of their rights.

We have a regional ombudsman in Kuban and we have already discussed the problem with him and will continue to do so. I plan to visit Krasnodar Territory to clarify the situation on the spot. But it should be an objective clarification. Reports are reaching me – I don't know whether they are correct or not, and I will check them out -- that in effect, when the question arose that the Meskhetian Turks can go and settle in the United States, actually only a small number wanted to leave. If this is indeed so, and I stress that if this indeed is so, it means that they have certain grounds for this. One should carefully analyze the situation in an objective way and this is what I intend to do.

Q: Your predecessor gave special priority to the right to work. It is known that human rights involve a whole block of interrelated rights. Do you have any priorities in this sense? If yes, what are they?

Lukin: All the rights guaranteed under the constitution are within the purview of the human rights commissioner. This includes political rights and social rights and under the Russian Federation Constitution, Russia is described as a social state and that means that the Russian citizens have inalienable social rights. Without a doubt citizens of Russia have the right to life, and that means that the Russian citizens must in any case live in a way that their income - from work, a pension or other benefits, lies within the limits of the subsistence minimum. There is not the slightest doubt about that.

At the same time it would probably be wrong to demand that the human rights commissioner solve this problem himself. I think the Russian President and Russian parliament and government of Russia has told us many times that it will try to bridge the gap between the subsistence level and the actual life of people. I am ready to work on this actively and I would like to use this opportunity to ask our authorities and new government to develop a concrete program for a concrete and short period of time that will bring the lives of our citizens into line with the Constitution as far as social issues are concerned. But this does not mean that I will not deal with the problems of political rights and freedoms during my tenure. I have already begun doing that and will doing this most energetically.

Q: When will you travel to Chechnya to study human rights situation on the ground?

Lukin: I have been in Chechnya many times in a different capacity and I will certainly go there again. But I do not want to travel to Chechnya to simply walk around for half a day and then say that I know the situation. I have to prepare for such a trip thoroughly. I may visit Chechnya together with the European ombudsman who is going to come here in May and July. He will come here twice. So I will prepare for that trip and will travel there as soon as I feel that my trip may produce practical and concrete results.

Q: We know you as a member of Yabloko and as an excellent foreign affairs expert. Will the human rights commissioner propose any changes and legislative initiatives in Russia, the Council of Europe and other international organizations? I just want to know if anything needs to be changed?

Lukin: A lot of things need to be changed. You know one Chinese poet said once that everything that was topsy-turvy has to be turned over. Therefore a lot of things have to be changed. But you must understand that the human rights commissioner has only those powers he has been given. He may try to change legislation but, unlike a State Duma deputy, he is now empowered by the Constitution and the law to put forth legislative initiatives.

Of course we have ways to influence deputies to encourage them to submit the laws that we think should be submitted, but we cannot do that on our own. An ombudsman can initiate Duma hearings on laws, and we will do that. I mean we will use all the leverage we have to change legislation or prevent them from being changed if these changes are bad. However, we can only do that by using the means that are available to us.

Q: And at the international level?

Lukin: I guess you mean our international obligations with regard to human rights. Do you mean that? Russia does have international obligations to the UN. Russia signed the UN declaration of human rights. We have obligations to the Council of Europe because Russia signed the main Council of Europe documents and must implement them. And we will certainly watch that. According to our Constitution, Russia's international obligations have supremacy over internal legislation. Therefore if there are disagreements, international obligations will apply.

Besides there is a number of obligations that we haven't fulfilled yet. These include for example several Council of Europe conventions. Take for instance Protocol No. 6 that bans the death penalty. The death penalty has not been used in Russia in accordance with a presidential decree and some other indirect legislative documents. We are the only country among the Council of Europe members after Turkey to have already ratified Protocol No. 6 -- Russia is the only country that hasn't done that yet. I think we shouldn't remain alone in this case for many reasons. First, as the death penalty on its own does not give positive results in terms of eradicating crime. Second, because it simply knocks us out of the European system.

This is why I and many sober-minded people insist on this fact. We have already exchanged our views. Yesterday the interagency commission on the Council of Europe met at the Foreign Ministry yesterday, and representatives from different agencies agreed that we should ratify this protocol as soon as possible.

I must remind you that the government has submitted it to the State Duma for ratification, but the State Duma has not yet presented it for ratification. So we have to work with the State Duma and its Foreign Affairs Committee. I think its current chairman Konstantin Kosachev is a reasonable, professional and enlightened person. We will work with him and the Duma as a whole.

Q: Could you speak more about legal education in schools? And will there be any changes in the school curriculum this academic year because it is very busy as it is?

Lukin: Are you asking how this is going to be done or how I want it to be done? These are different things?

Q: How you want it to be done?

Lukin: I want it to be done as follows. We will work out a program, introduce changes into the existing school curriculum, without adding new hours. This can be done. I won't go into details to avoid offending anyone. But this can be done. A decision on the grade at which it should be introduced has yet to be determined. I think this should be done when a person begins to evolve as an adult, and that is grades seven through nine. But of course it should be introduced in such a way that will not add more workload for schoolchildren. And yet there are many disputable and even exotic questions that have to be resolved without degrading the intellectual capacities of our young people. That's how I envision this. But we will have to work with experts and then see how it will look

Q: If I understand you correctly, one of your tasks is to watch over freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. How do you assess the current situation with the freedom of speech in Russia?

Lukin: I cannot say that the press in Russia is absolutely free or that it is totally unfree. I think the truth is somewhere in between. If it were totally unfree, we would not be here now, and you could not print tomorrow what you want to print. I mean members of our Russian press.

The printed press has a rather big degree of freedom, at least in the center. It differs in regions. But in the center it is quite commensurable with what many democratic countries have. I can't say that there are no attempts at muzzling some concrete media outlets, that there are no intrigues, including by government bodies. All that exists. But on the whole, the press writes what it wants and sometimes very sharply so. You know that as well as I do.

As for the electronic media, there is obvious political pressure on the media, especially the more influential ones. This is also an absolute fact. I am very glad that Mr. Seslavinsky who has now become the head of the corresponding agency, says they will move towards privatization, consequently, toward creating independent television channels. To be more specific, I think, NTV Channel which is part private, is pursuing a very different editorial policy. As for such programs as Svoboda Slova (Freedom of Expression), I simply see a trend, if only a partial trend, of going back to the old NTV format. I see no restraining factors there. Having said that, this is not a universal picture.

So, it is a very mixed picture. But on the whole, I am a staunch advocate of the constitutional provision about the preservation of the free press, including electronic press. I think it would be very useful to set up a Russian national television channel either on the basis of the old ones, or a new one financed under a budget line item and whose editorial policy would be decided by a public council comprising authoritative people. I don't know if I meet the description, but if I were invited, I would gladly accept the invitation.

Q: Regnum news agency. Vladimir Petrovich, a couple of weeks ago the media reported that you had received a letter signed by former political prisoners of the Soviet Union, and at the top of the list of signatories was Yelena Bonner and also those who call themselves the political prisoners of Putin's Russia. It was essentially an ultimatum and it demanded that you immediately become involved. My question is: have you seen that letter? Do you think that political prisoners are a problem in present-day Russia?

Lukin: I did receive the letter from the human rights activists. I am not going to comment on its form because it is a matter of taste. But as far as content is concerned, it raises many important issues. Some of them do merit attention. On all these issues we sent queries to the relevant government bodies seeking true information on the state of affairs and we will initiate inquiries wherever necessary.

Some facts are less convincing than others. But these are particulars. On the whole, I replied to my fellow human rights activists and explained my position. I share their interest in this case and all these facts will be looked into and I am open to cooperation with them. I think they received that reply. If they have further questions, we will engage in dialogue. I must say that this dialogue with human rights campaigners who are in Moscow and in Russia is already under way, with virtually all of them. Apart from my colleague Podrobinek who lives in Moscow all the other human rights activists now live outside Russia. As far as I remember, all of them. But I would hate to make a mistake. So I sent my reply to Mr. Podrobinek and he will convey it to the others. But wherever they live I have profound respect for their activities in the past and I am ready to engage in dialogue on any issues that are of interest to them. I have already started the dialogue.

Q: I have just one question. It's about the growing spread of xenophobia. As you know, a girl was murdered in St. Petersburg recently. A foreign student was murdered in Voronezh and a boy was thrown under a train in the metro in St. Petersburg. Is protecting foreign citizens is within your jurisdiction, how do you view the phenomenon of xenophobia and other manifestations of extremism and can it be reflected in your work? Especially, if you take a global look at the issue in terms of attracting foreign investors to Russia, etc.?

Lukin: Xenophobia and ethnically motivated crimes are of course hideous crimes. Undoubtedly, these actions are unconstitutional. And of course this will be and is already within our purview. We will set up a special body within our apparatus that will monitor these trends and respond to them timely and properly. For example there have been press reports, although I haven't verified them, claiming that sometimes our law enforcement agencies respond to such things very slowly and reluctantly. So we will be dealing with this very seriously and keep the public informed.

Q: We know from history that human rights in Russia have always been a weak spot and that the authorities and police always had a lot of power. I think that as an ombudsman you should act against authorities. Don't you fear that your mission may turn out to be too difficult or maybe even useless in future.

Lukin: There is a saying: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Do you know it? I think that all legal and democratic changes have never been easy. There is always success and failure on this path.

Unfortunately sometimes there is more failure than success. But we must move in this direction. Someone has to do this. If you find a better candidate, tell me and I will vacate the post for him immediately. If you don't find such a candidate, let me try to do it for some time.

The results of my work will become visible later. I can't tell you now that I will only work well and I will never work badly. It wouldn't be serious. Don't you think so? Indeed, it is difficult to deal with these things in Russia. Nevertheless, at a level, even at the level of the authorities I noticed there are people who understand that without legal education, without the legal status of our society there can be no other forms of progress over the long term.

Over the short term, it is possible, by exploiting the favorable market situation, to increase GDP over two or three years. But if there is no free society of people with initiative, if there is no genuine legal status, there will be no progress in Russia. And I am a patriot of my country. I am not a kind of patriot who endlessly talks on the topic and tries to generate some base feelings in people - and we have such people and they are quite visible – I am instead a patriot keen to help his country become a modern developed state where people would live a worthy life and where the state would lead a worthy life. If we Take at least a few steps forward, if we develop legal education, this will already be a big achievement. So, we will work and then we will see what happens.

Moderator: I think that I will express the unanimous opinion that we have had an interesting and lively conversation. The press conference is over and I thank you, Vladimir Petrovich.

Lukin: Thank you.


See also:

Human Rights

RIA Novosti, March 25, 2004

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