Europe's Long Legal Tether on Russia

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 23, 2006

MOSCOW -- For seven years, the Salvation Army battled a ruling by Moscow city authorities that the Christian charitable group, whose members wear uniforms and call their leader a general, was a foreign "paramilitary organization" that must cease operations in the capital.

Each step of the way in Russia's courts, the Salvation Army lost. In 2000, a Moscow court, noting the group's "barrack-room discipline," suggested it might involve itself in the violent overthrow of the state, court records show.

"The reasoning was unbelievable and sickening," said Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer at the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow who defended the Salvation Army.

This month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the city of Moscow had interfered with the group's freedom of religion and assembly. The Salvation Army's structure and norms were "particular ways of organizing the internal life of their religious community," the court said, and "it could not seriously be maintained that the applicant branch advocated a violent change of constitutional foundations."

Suddenly, the stance of Moscow officialdom changed. "Because of the ruling, we must register them, and we will," an official in Moscow's registration office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While President Vladimir Putin has been marginalizing Russia's parliament, opposition, media and human rights groups, this international court sitting 1,250 miles away in Strasbourg, France, has emerged as a powerful check on the excesses of the Russian bureaucracy and failures by the country's own investigative organs and courts to follow Russia's laws.

The European Court enforces the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, drawn up by the Council of Europe, an international body founded in the wake of World War II to defend human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Russia ratified the convention in 1998, agreeing to accept the court's decisions as binding.

"Much of what you see in the Russian justice system harks back to Soviet days," said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch. "If you're a human rights group, you can report on human rights excesses or publicize abuses in the press or meet with government officials, but it's hard to make a dent. One of the really effective tools now is the European Court, and it produces tangible and immediate results."

Bogert noted that in August Russia halted the deportation of 13 Uzbeks to their home country, where they faced a real risk of torture or execution, after the men appealed to the European Court. The former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, which is not a member of the Council of Europe, ignored international appeals not to send Uzbeks home, and the fate of the men it deported remains unknown.

Following European Court decisions in recent years, Russia improved conditions in pretrial detention centers and trimmed the powers of federal or local authorities to reopen ostensibly completed cases that they have lost in domestic courts. Torture victims have been compensated, and in at least one case, police officers were jailed for abuse after the Strasbourg court took up the matter.

"The court represents the end of impunity," said Olga Shepeleva, a lawyer with Demos, a human rights research center in Moscow. "There's a growing recognition that the court is a place where justice will be done. The authorities may not always be happy, but they pay attention to the results."

The European Court has entered Russian popular consciousness as a port of last resort for those seeking justice because the Russian state does bow to its judgments -- albeit with some very public grumbling.

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