Although the Soviet Union has "not witnessed the dawn of democracy," Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost or "openness" policies have eased repression and given people slightly improved rights of political and cultural expression, the State Department's top human rights official said yesterday.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, in making the department's annual report to Congress on human rights conditions in 170 countries, called the Soviet Union "the leading Leninist state . . . still a one-party dictatorship {where} . . . the KGB is still an all-powerful organ of repression.

"But there has been some relaxation in the harshness of repression. Some political and religious prisoners have been released. We know of only very few new incarcerations and commitments to psychiatric institutions for political reasons. There's somewhat greater freedom of expression. But a good deal of repression continues."

The report summarized the situation by saying, "The changes were more than cosmetic and less than fundamental. We need to see what 1988 will bring."

Although the report is limited to calendar 1987 and thus does not deal with the wave of violence and Arab deaths in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, reporters questioned Schifter closely about that situation.

The report notes that beginning in December, "there were several weeks of violent confrontation involving demonstrations and provocations by Palestinians and harsh reprisals by Israeli occupation authorities to restore security . . . . "

Schifter, acknowledging that the unrest and attempts to quell it by force continue, called the situation unique compared to other countries because it involves "military occupation in a situation in which you have an absence of peace."

He said of the Reagan administration views on Israel's response to the unrest, "I think our spokesman has frequently emphasized the position taken by the U.S. government, which is that in a number of situations the force used was excessive in our view."

Schifter said he did not think Israeli actions fit into a pattern where U.S. law would require cutting the $3 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid to Israel. "The terminology used in the law is that there has to be a gross pattern of human rights abuse, and we don't believe that this is the case there," he said.

When a reporter noted that there have been about 50 deaths and asked if that was more than excessive use of force, Schifter responded:

"If you take a look at the numbers killed in other parts of the world in similar situations, you will not find it unusual . . . . It's regrettable in all these circumstances. But let me simply say that the media covers some of these situations; they do not cover a great many others. And some obviously get a great deal more attention simply because they're covered by the media . . . . "

Of global human rights trends, Schifter said, "For many decades, the most serious threat to human integrity and human dignity has emanated from the states which claim the right to control both body and soul of every citizen, states which profess adherence to the teachings of Lenin."

Schifter said Gorbachev's glasnost has allowed people to criticize officials and aspects of the system "as long as one accepts the basic premise that the system is a good system, but that it requires improvement."

Punishments of dissidents are now generally less severe, ranging from harassment like cutting phone service to beating someone as a warning rather than sending him to prison or lengthy exile in Siberia, he said.

Elsewhere in the East bloc, Schifter cited improvements, notably in Poland where "virtually no persons were imprisoned on political grounds"; Hungary, which "continued its relatively relaxed policy toward political dissent," and East Germany, which ended its "shoot-to-kill policy" for people seeking to flee over the wall. But, he added, the year saw no human rights progress in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia or Romania.

While noting "greater openness" for communist China's masses, he said there had been "some regression" in suppressing unrest in Tibet.

He said North Korea occupies "first place as the most serious human rights violator in the world," and called Cuba "North Korea's political kin."

The report found substantial rights improvements in 1987 in the Philippines and South Korea, despite occasional torture and excessive force against political detainees by South Korean police.

The report said Philippine President Corazon Aquino's government had complied substantially with constitutional safeguards for civil and political rights, but also said defects in the legal system had enabled political killings to continue without fear of investigation or punishment.

In Latin America, where the reports in recent years had found an encouraging trend from military dictatorship to democracy, Schifter noted "with great regret" Haiti's failure to hold a democratic election as scheduled on Nov. 29. He added that "time will tell" whether Haitian democracy was put back on track by the widely boycotted elections earlier this month.

In Nicaragua, he said that while both the Marxist Sandinista government and U.S.-backed contra rebels have been guilty of rights violations in combat, the government "engages in . . . repressive acts such as keeping political prisoners and suppressing freedom of expression and the press."

He cited "another year of dismal racial repression" by the white-minority government in South Africa. "We are certainly not seeing any rays of hope there within the last year," he said.