Aba Delegation in USSR for Human Rights Seminars with Soviet Lawyers
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Aba Delegation in USSR for Human Rights Seminars with Soviet Lawyers

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Twenty U.S. lawyers are in the Soviet Union as delegates of the American Bar Association (ABA) to meet with members of the Association of Soviet Lawyers (ASL) and other Soviet teachers and legal experts for in-depth seminars and a tour of the Soviet Union to include observation of courtrooms and other institutions.

The scope of this particular exchange is unprecedented, says Eugene Thomas, immediate past president of the ABA who was instrumental in hammering out the details of the seminar.

The arrangement arose from the much disputed “declaration of cooperation” entered into by the two lawyers’ groups in 1985. Many Soviet Jewry activists in the U.S. have raised loud voices against the agreement, arguing that the Soviet lawyers work directly for the Soviet state and that within the group are individuals responsible for anti-Semitic propaganda.

However, a number of attorneys personally involved in the struggle for human rights in general and Soviet Jewish rights in particular have expressed cautious optimism for the accord, viewing it as a possibility to work, albeit guardedly, with the Soviet system.

The ABA, at its annual convention last month in San Francisco, resolved by voice vote that any agenda drawn up between the American and Soviet lawyers must include the issue of human rights. This will include permission to monitor trials, release of political prisoners, an end to punitive psychiatric hospitalization and adherence to the Helsinki Accords.

The resolution was urged by those generally opposed to the ABA-ASL agreement who, in light of the 156-32 person vote at this past convention, saw some slim possibilities in including a special resolution that would focus ABA attention on human rights and the special cases of Soviet Jews and dissident prisoners.


The agenda of the initial two-day seminar, held in Moscow, encompassed methodical interchanges on the two nations’ legal approaches to the issue of individual freedoms, including: the concept of human rights; human rights provisions in the constitutions of both countries; international pacts on human rights and their implementation in the law of the country; social, economic, political and legal guarantees of the enforcement of human rights (housing, education, health care, employment).

Also, political rights and freedoms of citizens; procedural guarantees of justice and of the rights of an individual (due process); guarantees of inviolability of persons and their homes (search and seizure); social and economic rights of citizens; rights of women in society; rights of national, racial and ethnic minorities in society; available remedies to protect rights of individuals against encroachments by officials or government agencies; and the role of the judiciary in protection of the rights of an individual.

The two days of seminars were held September 3 and 4. In addition, court visits and other meetings were planned for the American and Soviet lawyers in Moscow and Leningrad.

The delegation is led by Robert MacCrate, ABA president, and the organization’s president-elect, Robert Raven, the two of them acting as official ABA representatives.

Although there have been previous exchanges between the two lawyers’ groups which have placed human rights as a priority concern, the current seminar in the USSR focuses on the issue exclusively.

Last September, the American and Soviet lawyers met at Dartmouth College. This past June, the Soviet lawyers attended a meeting of the ABA board of governors in Boston, and then were invited to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they discussed human rights issues. The Attorneys General also decided to send a delegation to the USSR, slated for October.

The Soviet lawyers then went to Boise, Idaho, at the invitation of Thomas, who is now in private practice there. In Boise, they discussed trade and business relations with the USSR with a panel of general counsel of Pacific Northwest businesses interested in international trade.

“Please note,” Thomas told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, referring to the Moscow seminars, “that this is different in that there is an added quality of expertise in the field of human rights and Soviet law generally.” He explained that five lawyers addressing the issues are specialists, steeped in Soviet law, culture and language. The ABA delegates were briefed by the State Department and Soviet Jewry groups, Thomas said.

The concord between the American and Soviet lawyers was adamantly opposed at the ABA’s annual convention last month in San Francisco by former Soviet dissidents who were Prisoners of Conscience in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals. They see this agreement as a ploy, a deceit perpetrated by the Soviets under the new policy of glasnost.

ABA advocates of the human rights resolution claim that if the Soviet lawyers are members of the Soviet state system, one has to deal with them as such, without illusions, and bring this awareness to the discussion table.


Neil Kritz, who drafted the resolution, was among those who briefed the ABA delegation that is now in the USSR. Kritz told JTA he thinks “this is very worthwhile. I think the ABA is a potentially very important ally in the Soviet Jewry movement.” Kritz believes one of the most significant accomplishments to come from the ABA-ASL agreement will be the successful placement of prison observers.

At present, the ABA and ASL have agreed to a court trial observer arrangement in both countries, “which if it works is an enormous step,” said Kritz, a Soviet Jewry activist himself who works in the ABA’s Washington office as coordinator of immigration law implementation projects.

Thomas said that at the June meetings in Boston, ASL visitors “admitted they had to be able to enforce the agreement. They agreed that the Soviet standards of justice weren’t high enough, that KGB practices were wrong.”

The agreement to trial and prison observers was not easy to realize, said Thomas, explaining at length the background to the agreement. The accord did not come about in Washington, or New York, or even in Boston. Rather, it was pushed over late night coffee in his living room in Boise. There, he worked over the agreement’s specifics with ASL president Alexander Sukharev, who is also Justice Minister of Russia.

Thomas said he had tried to include in the agenda administrative proceedings in addition to criminal and civil judicial proceedings. Sukharev, he said, agreed to support the criminal and civil observer requests and would sign an agreement at a later time, but Thomas said he told him that the partial agreement “wasn’t good enough.”

Therefore, said Thomas, Sukharev promised to fight for the rights of lawyers or appropriate government officials to visit each others’ countries to observe trials or civil and criminal proceedings. Thomas and Sukharev then secured board ratification of the presidential agreement. In San Francisco, this agreement was formalized.

“We’ve set this up so that other relevant people in the U.S. should go to the USSR as observers in trials,” Thomas said. “What you do is you press and you press. But you’ve got to get these people to change what they do. This is a business for very cynical people,” Thomas conceded.

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