Lukin Deplores Prisoner Treatment

ReutersChechens calling for the rule of law during a demonstration Friday in Grozny.
As President Vladimir Putin sang the praises of a resurgent Russia late last week, the country's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, criticized the treatment of prisoners in his annual report.

The 16-section report, which summarizes human rights violations reported during 2007, outlined a total of 28,617 complaints -- a 12 percent drop in comparison with 2006.

Independent rights activists gave the findings a cool reception, saying the report was incomplete.

Violations covered a number of areas, including missed pension payments, discrimination against the disabled and labor issues, but the report concentrated on the rights of prisoners, whose conditions, it said, approached torture.

"The conditions in many penitentiaries are, in essence, close to torture," the report said, citing the "unfounded use of physical measures."

Lukin's office received more than 3,000 complaints from prisoners, at least a third of whom accused prison officials of denying them their basic rights.

"It should be stressed that this alarming picture is explained not only by the poor work law enforcement system employees, but also by the extremely slow change in the principles upon which the system is built," the report said.

Prison officials criticized the report as biased.

"Let the conclusions rest on the consciences of those who prepared this report," said the head of the Federal Prisons Service, Yury Kalinin, Interfax reported.

"We don't deny that isolated rights violations occur, but each is dealt with and adequate measures are taken," Kalinin said.

Independent activists praised Lukin for addressing prison abuses. But they said he had paid scant attention to other serious issues, including an apparent rise in hate crimes, crackdowns on opposition rallies, and reports of kidnappings in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

"The situation with opposition rallies, freedom of association and personal security in the North Caucasus needed addressing," said Alexander Petrov, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, who described the report as "basically good, but with glaring omissions."

Media freedoms were also conspicuously absent from the report, Petrov said.

"The report's main achievement," he said, "is that it will not allow civil servants to sleep easy."

Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said that the "cautiously written" report was "useful, given Lukin's position as a government employee."

"He can't undermine the state. His reports have to avoid political undertones," Brod said.

Putin, speaking in his last annual news conference as president on Thursday, touted his record of the past eight years and made no mention of human rights violations.