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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Ruling Limits Police Phone Taps

Russia's Supreme Court has forced the Interior Ministry to adopt new and tougher regulations on telephone tapping and surveillance of private mail, a ministry official said Thursday.

The decision, which aims to limit some of the most intrusive surveillance techniques practiced in the former Soviet Union, was welcomed by lawyers and human rights activists, although they were skeptical about its implementation.

A Supreme Court official said that the decision also applied to the new Federal Counterintelligence Service, which is under the direct control of President Boris Yeltsin, although it was not known whether that service had yet adopted the new regulations.

Interior Ministry personnel -- who now include parts of the former Security Ministry, or KGB -- will in future have to obtain permission from a judge before they can tap a phone line or open a suspect's mail, said Anatoly Mazhukhin, head of the Interior Ministry's Legal Department.

Previously, investigators were required only to get permission from the Public Prosecutor's Office, with which they worked in close cooperation. The lax rules also allowed them first to install the tap and then to obtain a prosecutor's permission later.

The aim of the change in regulations, according to both the ministry and court officials, is to make the process more difficult and independent of the state's investigating bodies.

"This system is unusual for us," said Mazhukhin, who acknowledged that state investigators had never previously had to clear a serious bureaucratic obstacle before installing telephone taps.

Lyudmila Tarakanova, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said that the court had ruled to enforce the new safeguards late last year in accordance with the new Russian Constitution adopted in the Dec. 12 referendum. The Constitution orders judges to record, in written form, their reasons for giving or withholding permission to tap a telephone or read private mail.

Oleg Lyamin, a defense attorney, said that the Supreme Court's decision eliminated "the monopoly of the Public Prosecutor's Office to control investigations."

"But how it will take place in real life, no one knows," he added.

During the Soviet era, police investigators and KGB officers were able to tap telephones at will, a practice that made up an integral part of the state's repressive security system.

Many Russians believe that the KGB -- which was renamed the Security Ministry in 1992 and then broken into several pieces last month -- has continued using its former methods since the fall of communism in December 1991.

Vil Mirzayanov, a scientist who is now on trial for allegedly revealing state secrets about Russia's chemical weapons research in 1992, said Thursday he was "very skeptical" about the new procedure. He said that he had been given six reels of recordings of his private conversations with his wife and friends at the start of his trial this month, but had seen no order authorizing the surveillance.