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WASHINGTON ASKS KYIV TO ASSIGN ANTICHEMICAL UNIT TO IRAQ. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual told journalists in Kyiv on 18 February that he delivered a note from the U.S. government to President Leonid Kuchma and Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko inquiring about the possibility of sending a Ukrainian antinuclear-, antibiological-, and antichemical-warfare (NBC) battalion to the Persian Gulf, Interfax reported. The diplomat noted that such a unit need not take part in any military operations and could be put into action only in the event that weapons of mass destruction are used in any possible conflict. Premier Kuchma has recently signaled that Ukraine might contribute an NBC unit to a UN-authorized mission targeting Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). JM

UKRAINIAN COMMUNIST LEADER OPPOSES FIELDING SINGLE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE FROM OPPOSITION. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists in Kyiv on 18 February that "the idea of putting forward a single candidate from the opposition forces in the future presidential election is fallacious," UNIAN reported. According to Symonenko, both Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Block are "bourgeois parties" that represent "rightist-bourgeois and nationalist-bourgeois forces" in Ukraine. "One needs to take a realistic look at things: It's impossible to propose a single candidate from such different forces," Symonenko said. JM

WITNESS IN 'RYWINGATE' COMPLAINS OF PHONE THREAT. Wanda Rapaczynska, president of the Agora publishing house, testified on 18 February before a special parliamentary commission dealing with the Lew Rywin bribery scandal, Polish media reported. Rapaczynska told the commission that she received a phone call in which the anonymous caller said he had been paid to kill her. Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik said later the same day that police will investigate the alleged threat and take protective measures if necessary. Rapaczynska was reportedly the first person whom Rywin allegedly approached with an offer to lobby the government over a media law for a bribe of $17.5 million (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January and 18 February 2003). JM

PRIME MINISTER BACKS RUBLE AS EES COMMON CURRENCY. Speaking at a session of the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EES) in Moscow on 19 February, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said he supports the idea of using the Russian ruble as the organization's common currency, reported. The idea was proposed earlier at the session by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who said, "It is nonsense that businessmen in these countries make deals in foreign currencies and part of their profits goes God knows where," ITAR-TASS reported. Kasyanov also proposed the creation of a Eurasian natural-gas consortium, which would create uniform trade and transit conditions for all members. Kasyanov stressed that Ukraine and Moldova -- which participated in the session as observers -- are especially interested in the gas-transit issue. VY

The Russian court system was dealt a slap in the face in January when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg agreed to hear the cases of six Chechen citizens alleging human rights violations by Russian soldiers.

The court's decision to hear the cases was resoundingly ignored by the national media in Russia. As a result, Russian society is missing an opportunity to discuss the extent to which the courts are independent of government officials, the secret services, and the military and their ability to protect citizens' constitutional rights.

In all, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that 20 cases from Russia are admissible, but the cases of the six Chechens seems the most compelling indictment against the Russian legal system.

Each of the cases presents interesting aspects. Two complainants, Magomed Khashiev and Rosa Akaeva, have been ignored by the Russian courts since May 2000, when they first filed allegations of the torture and extrajudicial execution of their relatives by Russian soldiers in Grozny at the end of January 2000. Although the bullet-riddled bodies of two of Khashiev's sons, his brother, his sister, and that of Akaeva's brother would seem to be stark evidence, the Russian courts brushed aside the complaint and refused even to hear the case.

Medka Isaeva, Zina Yusupova, and Libkan Bazaeva faced the same stone wall regarding their allegations related to the 29 October 1999 bombing of civilian targets by Russian warplanes. In that incident, Isaeva was wounded, and two of her children and a daughter-in-law were killed. Yusupov was also wounded in the bombing, and a car containing all of Bazaeva's family's possessions was destroyed. Again, the Russian courts refused even to hear the case.

The sixth complaint accepted by the Strasbourg court was filed by Zara Isaeva, who endured a similar bombing raid on her village, Katyr-Yurt, on 4 February 2000. Her son and three of her nieces were killed in the attack. Russian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the incident in May 2000, but the case was quietly closed without ever being brought to trial.

One can understand that Russia's courts have pragmatic reasons for refusing to hear such cases, which could easily snowball into the thousands in a very short time. Although the military is keeping a tight lid on information about the number of civilian casualties incurred during its "antiterrorism operation" in Chechnya since 1999, it is clear that the European Court of Human Rights could easily find itself facing many thousands of similar applications now that a precedent has been set. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHFHR) and other organizations continue to stress the danger that civilians in Chechnya face.

"While the Russian state takes steps to push displaced Chechens out of [displaced persons] camps and has organized a constitutional referendum in Chechnya for 23 March 2003, promoting the notion that the situation is being 'normalized,' civilians continue to be abducted, beaten, tortured, and murdered by Russian military and security forces," reads a 22 January IHRHR press release that further alleged that 11 men disappeared from a single district in Grozny during the first two weeks of January.

"Mutilated bodies of disappeared persons continue to be found, some in graves and others left apparently to intimidate the population. On 13 January, 10 corpses were discovered, all of which had been mutilated by explosives. Several could be identified as persons who had been abducted by federal forces about three weeks earlier, according to numerous witnesses. But the prosecutor-general of Chechnya stated that the victims had been executed by Chechen rebels," the federation's press release alleged.

With such an approach to the problem, the Strasbourg court has come to be seen as the last hope for the people caught up in the violence. But can it reasonably be expected to cope with this responsibility, and is the Russian legal community ready to make full use of this tool? Since Russia signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, its citizens have filed 12,887 applications, according to statistics published recently in "The Moscow Times." Of those, 8,500 were registered as having been properly submitted, but about 4,700 were rejected summarily, primarily because they refer to events that occurred prior to Russia's ratification of the convention. Of the remaining 3,700, 120 stem from the fighting in Chechnya. According to Anatolii Kovler, the Russian judge on the European Court of Human Rights, most of the Russian complaints concern social and economic matters, including applications from victims of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, complaints about conditions in Russian jails, and cases regarding the country's many questionable investment schemes.

Many Russian activists are concerned that too little is being done to help Russian lawyers submit applications that are likely to be accepted. "[The court has] no desire to talk directly to applicants during the consideration process and it prefers to hear what the authorities from their countries are saying," said Ruslan Linkov, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Democratic Russia party, who has assisted in filing several complaints to the court. "People just do not know what [the court] demands, and it is simply because there is no information in Russian on which documents are necessary in order to make a successful appeal."

As a result, the vast majority of appeals from Russia are simply thrown out. Human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov has repeatedly urged the creation of a state-sponsored program to train Russian lawyers about the Strasbourg court, but the government has rejected these initiatives. To the average Russian, such rejections seem a lot like the stonewalling that they are already getting from the legal system at home and do little to bolster the hope that the European Court of Human Rights can compel Russia's courts to do more to protect the rights of Russian citizens.