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Legal Reform Needed to Improve Civil Rights in Russia

(Washington, DC -- June 21, 2004) Four prominent Russian human rights activists emphasized that legal reform is the central requirement for achieving any civil rights improvements in Russia during a recent briefing at RFE/RL's Washington offices. The activists--Ludmila Alekseeva, Mara Polyakova, Arseny Roginsky and Alexei Simonov--were in Washington to receive the 2004 Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Although Russian authorities have announced that improving the judicial system is a priority, Polyakova, director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise, described the formulation of the new codes and laws as so "convoluted as to create the impression that they were democratic." Although many of the needed reforms have been documented by the government, the procedures offered for achieving those reforms cannot be implemented. As a result, Polyakova said, "what emerged on the surface is very often perceived by non-specialists as genuine judiciary reform."

Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which trains journalists to cover war, expressed concerned about the future of Russia. He focused on the next generation of leaders, saying the first thing needed is to develop politicians dedicated to democracy. "I have serious worries about my abilities to pass on what has been achieved because by that time, it might have been destroyed again," he said. Simonov, who has worked on issues ranging from freedom of speech to the Internet, also criticized Russia's new censorship laws, saying they resemble "rules of hunting written by rabbits."

Alekseeva, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group and president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, challenged Simonov's "pessimism" about the current situation in Russia, stating that he was comparing the present situation to the height of democratic achievement in the late 80s and early 90s. Alekseeva noted that, before that period, "our cause seemed to be hopeless. We were fighting an enormous entity, this huge machine, and all we had was our decisiveness, our intent to stand firm and defend human rights," Alekseeva said. "It's so much easier to work now than it was then."

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