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Yeltsin vs. Mafia: Democracy in Cross Hairs?

Russians worry a new presidential decree extending police powers could override civil rights and the rule of law

EBOLDENED by a new presidential decree granting the police sweeping powers, Russian antiterrorist units this week launched a massive campaign code named ``Operation Hurricane'' to rid Moscow of alleged Mafia-style gangsters.

Toting Kalashnikov rifles and wearing bulletproof vests, special Interior Ministry and police units detained more than 2,200 people in the two-day siege that began midnight Tuesday, Russia's Ostankino television reported.

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The crackdown, partially foiled after Russian media announced the plan in advance, was the first major crime sweep since President Boris Yeltsin signed on June 14 a decree increasing police powers, which has been widely criticized for infringing on civil rights.

It allows police to detain organized crime suspects for 30 days without cause, search offices and homes without a warrant, and examine the finances of suspects and of relatives who have lived with them for more than five years. It allows uncorroborated testimony in court and provides that witnesses who refuse to testify be punished.

Revived memories of Stalin

Critics say the decree could signal the return to the Red Terror of the Soviet era, when KGB security police raided homes and carted suspects away - ostensibly to protect the Soviet state. Others say it will simply give the police extended opportunities to profit from bribes.

``The battle against crime must be waged without undermining the law and without giving free rein to the police,'' Igor Gamayunov of Literaturnaya Gazeta wrote Tuesday. ``Violations of the law by government structures could let loose a wave of lawlessness that this country has not seen since the height of Stalin's terror.''

Mr. Gamayunov said the decree would encourage police to plant drugs or weapons on suspects and to alter and falsify documents, to resolve cases more quickly. He said the number of police beatings and interrogations would rise, and that mobsters would be encouraged to keep illegal earnings hidden in overseas accounts.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, urged President Yeltsin to suspend the decree, saying it violated Russia's Constitution.

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A parliamentary resolution, passed by 279 to 10, said the decree ``to a large extent and without sufficient grounds limits the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens.'' Deputies recommended parliament penal reform, security, and legislation committees be given two weeks to finalize draft laws under consideration.

Yeltsin later in the day entrusted Russian human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov to monitor the decree. ``I understand your concern and the concern of people and deputies that the implementation of the degree may endanger the constitutional rights of the individual,'' Yeltsin said in a letter to Kovalyov, released by the presidential press service.

But Yeltsin told the ITAR-Tass news agency yesterday that he would not suspend the degree. But top Yeltsin aide Georgy Satarov said the Russian president plans to present the Duma with a draft of amendments to the decree to bring it in line with existing laws.

``I am in favor of the violation of human rights, if the person is a bandit or a criminal,'' said Sergei Stepachin, head of Russia's domestic security service, which Interfax reported initiated the decree.

Mafia-style gangs are threatening to take over Russian economics and politics as the country struggles to rebuild. Bombings, contract killings, and gangland-style robberies are almost daily occurrences. Trust in the largely corrupt police has plummeted. Tuesday's sweep included soldiers from an elite Interior Ministry unit from the Dzerzhinsky division stationed outside Moscow. They raided 14 Moscow hotels, 232 private businesses and bank offices, and four markets, the TV report said. More than 1,000 cars were inspected at 27 parking lots and 43 checkpoints.

Mafia's unfriendly takeover bid

FBI Director Louis Freeh, who plans to open the agency's first office in Moscow on July 4, said at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday that at least 100,000 Russians are members of organized crime gangs, according to Reuters. Russian gangsters have links with Colombian drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia, and there is danger that nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Freeh added.

Russia's Interior Ministry on Tuesday issued a survival guide for foreigners on how to avoid crime. But foreigners sometimes find it is the police themselves that are to be avoided. An Indian student who declined to be identified said police searched his dorm without a warrant after the decree took effect. They ordered him to move after learning he was officially registered in a different building, but finally accepted a $50 bribe and left.

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