Rice pledges support to Russian rights activists

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MOSCOW, Oct 13 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Russian human rights activists today she wanted to help them build institutions to protect people from the 'arbitrary power of the state'.

The meeting could irk the Kremlin, which is sensitive to Western accusations it is rolling back democratic freedoms and suspects foreign governments of trying to influence the outcome of next year's presidential election.

Rice told eight human rights leaders she wanted to hear about their efforts to protect freedoms in Russia.

''I am quite confident that your goal is to build institutions that are indigenous to Russia -- that are Russian institutions -- but that are also respectful of what we all know to be universal values,'' said Rice.

She said these were: ''The rights of individuals to liberty and freedom, the right to worship as you please, and the right to assembly, the right to not have to deal with the arbitrary power of the state.'' ''How is it going and what can we do to help Russia to build strong institutions that have these universal values?'' The United States and other Western governments are concerned about democracy, human rights and civil society in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

He has centralised power and mounted a huge security operation in Chechnya. Television, main source of news for most Russians, has been brought under tight Kremlin control with Putin's opponents rarely given access to the airwaves.

Opinion polls though show most Russians back Putin's tough style of rule.

ABU-GHRAIB JAIL Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Demos civil rights group, said she and her colleagues had discussed with Rice rights abuses in Chechnya, and fears the Russian political system discriminates against the opposition.

But Lokshina said the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay and allegations of abuse at the US-run Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq had dented Washington's authority on human rights.

''The United States has somewhat lost effectiveness from the point of view of its ability to criticise the Russian government,'' she said.

''Today when the United States criticises, the Russian authorities say: 'Look what is happening on your patch'.'' Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said she told Rice the West should be more vocal. ''An authoritarian regime is intentionally being built (in Russia),'' she said.

''I told Rice that human rights activists would like Western leaders visiting Russia ... to raise human rights issues not only in private conversations but also publicly.'' Rice and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday met Putin and their Russian counterparts for talks that focused on Washington's plan for a missile defence shield in eastern Europe.

Moscow is opposed to the project.

It was unclear to what extent Rice had raised human rights with Russian officials. Asked yesterday if she had brought up the possibility Putin would become prime minister when his final term as president ends next year, Rice avoided a direct answer.

Rice today also spoke to a group of of five Russian professionals and suggested democracy would take time.

''If Russia is to emerge as a democratic country that can fully protect the rights of its people, it is going to emerge over years,'' she told the group.

REUTERS GL PM1717

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