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Congressmen Claim Gulags Still Exist : Soviet Camps Hold Political Prisoners, U.S. Visitors Say

August 10, 1989|From Associated Press

MOSCOW — Two U.S. congressmen said today that their visit to a prison camp in the Ural Mountains convinced them that the Soviet Union is still holding political prisoners.

Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who visited the Perm 35 labor camp and interviewed 24 prisoners, said they could not specify how many are being held for their political beliefs.

But Wolf said "many or most said they were political prisoners" and "we believe that they are."

The congressmen also criticized the prison camp's conditions, saying inmates complained of the cold and isolation and the few visits from relatives that are allowed. Perm 35 is known for housing and mistreating Soviet dissidents, once including well-known human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who now lives in Israel.

"They ought to close the camp down," Wolf said. "It's a terrible place, and it ought not to exist."

Wolf and Smith said the camp clearly was spruced up for their arrival, with fresh paint on many walls and flowers on cafeteria tables.

They also visited punishment cells where, they were told, prisoners are kept without bedding or warm clothes even in the dead of winter.

Former Inmates Quoted

Former prisoners have said confinement at the camp, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow and 80 miles outside the industrial town of Perm, included every-other-day rations of bread and gruel and new punishments tacked onto their sentences.

The congressmen, who are members of the Helsinki Commission, said they will seek to have more delegations visit such camps to assure that conditions are humane.

Smith said he hopes that bringing " glasnost to the Gulag," or more openness to the prison camp system, will bring improvements in camp life.

Asked how he reconciles his findings to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's denials that the Soviet Union still has political prisoners, Smith said, "I believe Mr. Gorbachev may have been misled by his own people."

Human rights groups estimate that there are still about 100 political prisoners in the Soviet Union, according to a State Department official accompanying the congressmen.

"We think Mr. Gorbachev will use his immense political power to see these people are released," Smith said.

Smith and Wolf said they and several human rights groups are pushing Soviet authorities to review the cases of the prisoners they met. Many were convicted of treason or for trying to leave the Soviet Union illegally.

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