Soviets Win Praise From Amnesty International

Times Staff Writer

The Soviet Union is in the midst of a campaign to improve its human rights reputation among Western countries, and there are signs that the effort is succeeding.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights monitoring group, completed its first visit to the Soviet Union on Saturday with the organization’s director praising Moscow for, at long last, “acknowledging the legitimacy of human rights activism.”

The assessment was the third in a series of limited endorsements over the last several weeks.


Friday, the World Psychiatric Assn. provisionally readmitted the Soviet Union, five years after Moscow pulled out of the organization over allegations that it was involuntarily confining political dissidents in mental hospitals.

In mid-March, a group of American psychiatrists completed a two-week tour of Soviet psychiatric facilities, refusing to reveal their findings but commending Soviet authorities for cooperating with their requests “to a degree that I’m not even sure we would,” as one of the doctors said.

Hospitalization of Dissidents

The psychiatrists’ visit was aimed at discovering whether the Soviet Union had abandoned its practice of involuntarily hospitalizing dissidents, and it is likely that the World Psychiatric Assn. received a preliminary report of their impressions before taking its decision.

Moscow’s attempt to revamp its image in the West appears aimed at securing approval from the United States and its European allies to host a human rights conference here in 1991.

But the initial impetus to improve human rights was clearly internal. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to pull the Soviet Union out of its prolonged period of economic and political stagnation required open criticism of past policies, and for that, people had to be able to debate freely, without fear of imprisonment.

Neither the psychiatrists nor Amnesty International, however, believe all human rights violations have ended in the Soviet Union.

Amnesty’s secretary general, Ian Martin, said the visiting three-member delegation had raised the cases of approximately 100 prisoners of conscience with Soviet authorities.

The cases in question, he said, involved Soviets jailed for religious and political beliefs, including conscientious objectors, as well as those held against their will in psychiatric institutions. In addition, he said, other people have been denied permission to emigrate in violation of their rights.

But he said Amnesty figures showed there had been a decline in the number of annual cases of jailing of political and religious dissidents, and that the Soviet Union had released 300 imprisoned dissidents since 1987.

In addition, the decision to allow Amnesty International to visit after 28 years of refusals was a turn-around for this country, which previously imprisoned Soviet members of the Helsinki Watch group set up to monitor Soviet adherence to human rights accords signed in Helsinki in 1975.

“We’ve been encouraged by how open the debate on human rights has become,” Martin said in an interview, “and we’ve been encouraged to find people in Moscow who advocate all the same views that Amnesty International advocates.”

Martin said that during a 10-day visit, the Amnesty delegates met with the country’s chief psychiatrist, the head of the Supreme Court, representatives of the human rights and internal affairs departments within the Foreign Ministry and attorneys in charge of a current effort to revise the Soviet penal code.

In addition, he said, delegates met with former Soviet prisoners and dissidents, including physicist Andrei D. Sakharov.

Martin said the group had three areas of concern.

First, the delegates were frustrated by the inability of Soviet authorities to provide figures on the number of prisoners sentenced to death or executed. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty. Martin said that, according to the group’s figures, seven people were executed in the Soviet Union in 1988 and 15 were sentenced to death.

“But this is only our compilation of figures from press reports, and we have no idea what the total is,” he said. “Soviet officials said they also could not provide us with figures but assured us there is a declining use of the death penalty.”

Second, Martin said the group is still concerned about prisoners jailed for political or religious beliefs. “We raised a sample of cases with the Soviet authorities,” he said, adding that he believes, for example, that far more conscientious objectors from the Afghanistan war were imprisoned than the organization knows about.

Finally, Martin said, Amnesty wants to make sure that changes planned for the Soviet penal code are, in fact, put into place. Soviet authorities have previously used charges such as “hooliganism” or “anti-Soviet agitation” to jail prisoners of conscience.

“We have reasons to believe there are no offenses in the new criminal code, as it is currently planned, that will lead to imprisonment on political or religious grounds, or, we hope, for wanting to exercise the right to leave the country,” Martin said. “Now we must watch very carefully to see what finally emerges.”

Martin said that when Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and began advocating reform of the country and greater openness about its problems, Amnesty International began to ask “with increasing hope” for permission to visit the Soviet Union. That permission came last December.

Martin added that the group hopes to make further visits to the Soviet Union.