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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukin Blames All Sides in Chechnya

The country's ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, criticized all sides in the Chechen conflict over human rights abuses and bemoaned a lack of press freedom in his annual report published Thursday, but he also surprisingly railed against high gasoline prices and said state television was intolerably full of commercials.

A veteran human rights campaigner, however, said Lukin had tiptoed around sensitive political issues and had been careful not to make statements that could annoy the authorities.

Lukin said responsibility for rights violations in Chechnya -- including killings, abductions and unauthorized arrests -- lay with both pro-Moscow and Chechen rebel forces and called for "a new, unconventional approach to the problem," according to the report, which was published in the official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"We should not simplify the current situation by just reducing it to a dilemma of holding or not holding talks with separatist leaders who have discredited themselves," he said, referring to the Chechen conflict. "The priority here should be not only the unity and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, but also the protection of citizens' basic rights and freedoms" both in Chechnya and in the rest of the country.

Veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said he was disappointed that Lukin's report did not go as far as to call for negotiations to end the conflict. By stating that separatist leaders had "discredited themselves," Lukin showed that he did not support the idea of holding talks, Ponomaryov said.

"There is a sharp borderline that Lukin does not cross," Ponomaryov said. "He doesn't want to get involved in political issues."

Ponomaryov said that Lukin had failed to address several key human rights issues, and had apparently avoided giving his own view because he wanted to avoid political controversy, and had instead cited public opinion.

"He failed to admit that cases of political prisoners have re-emerged," Ponomaryov said, naming arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin and physicist Valentin Danilov, who were jailed on charges of espionage, as examples.

Lukin, a former senior member of the liberal Yabloko party who was appointed government ombudsman after President Vladimir Putin's re-election a year ago, said it was too early to give an assessment on Putin's scrapping of popular gubernatorial elections. Instead, he restricted himself to vaguely stating that the reform should not hurt democracy.

Citing the example of last September's attack in Beslan, Lukin called on the state to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, and called for citizens to help the state in its anti-terrorist efforts.

Lukin said the authorities "have been increasing control over mass media lately." A way to make the media more independent would be to introduce lower taxes and subsidies for them, he said. Lukin also proposed creating an "experts' council" that would make recommendations in trials involving the media.

Laws passed last year that imposed restrictions on public rallies and made referendums more difficult to organize were troubling, Lukin said, but he asserted that he would ensure the laws did not hinder civil rights.

Lukin said the judicial and penal systems needed improvement, despite what he called some positive developments such as the introduction of jury trials and a reduction in the total prison population.

But he noted that attempts to reduce widespread police violence had yielded only a "very limited" effect.

He also called on law enforcement agencies to respect people's privacy by not illegally listening in on telephone conversations or opening mail when investigating crime and fighting terrorism.

As well as making his cautious human rights complaints, Lukin also branched out to venture opinions on consumer and cultural issues in what appeared to be an attempt to reflect views expressed in public opinion polls.

He lashed out in particular at the ubiquitous television commercials on state television, saying the government should look into why "state television channels that exist on taxpayers' money are overloaded with commercials."

In another dig, Lukin tore into lowbrow television shows. "The low artistic and moral level of mass culture, and especially television broadcasts, is causing growing criticism from the public," he said.

On the economy, Lukin lambasted poverty and said the government had to fight it by using the proceeds from high world oil prices to reform the economy. But he also took a swipe at higher domestic gasoline prices, which he said were "absurd for an oil-producing country." He said high oil prices hampered motorists' and public transport passengers' freedom of movement, a basic right.

"He must have felt it himself," Ponomaryov joked, adding that he would not call high gasoline prices an encroachment on human rights.

Lukin criticized the courts and the government for closing their eyes to ethnic and religious intolerance, saying the problem could threaten the country's unity.

In a break with tradition, Lukin presented his report to Putin on March 1 and to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on March 18, before giving it to the State Duma. Previous holders of his post have presented annual reports only to the Duma.

Lukin discussed the report with Putin and Fradkov to make it "more effective," said Andrei Lebedev, a spokesman for Lukin's office. The Duma is scheduled to hear the report in mid-April, he said. The report is the shortest one by a Russian ombudsman, said Svetlana Pastukhova, a spokeswoman for the office.