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Russian parliament OKs human-rights pact

Russia's communist-led parliament voted overwhelmingly Friday to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights, marking another step away from the country's authoritarian past.

For the first time in their history, Russians will be able to appeal to international jurists based in Strasbourg if they feel national courts have failed to protect rights ranging from the fundamental right to life itself, to private property and a fair trial, freedom of speech and religion.The lower house State Duma also ratified Europe's anti-torture convention.

President Boris Yeltsin, urging the Duma to ratify the document two years after joining the Council of Europe human rights body, said it would "confirm our country's commitment to the principles of democracy and the rule of law."

"Ratification of the convention is an important step on the road to providing real protection for human rights in Russia," Vladimir Lukin, the liberal chairman of the Duma's international affairs committee, told the chamber.

Approval by the upper house and signature by Yeltsin should now be formalities in the process of ratifying the document.

Only 11 votes opposed ratification to 294 in favor in a chamber dominated by socially conservative communists and nationalists. Success was aided by the fact the government left out a protocol banning the highly popular death penalty.

Russia signed that protocol, No. 6, prohibiting capital punishment in peacetime, last year and in theory has a further year to ratify it. But public opinion, amid an unprecedented violent crime wave, is strongly in favor of executions and few Russian officials expect to meet that deadline.

Deputy foreign minister Igor Ivanov, presenting the convention to the Duma, said Yeltsin's moratorium on executions would suffice. Some 900 people are on death row and death sentences are still being handed down but no one has been shot since August 1996 under the presidential decree.

Gen. Albert Makashov, a Communist deputy, was one of the few to raise his voice against the convention.

He said it laid Russia open to claims for compensation from victims of Stalinist persecution, citing among others citizens of the Baltic states who want reparations for their deportation after the Soviet annexations of their countries in 1940.