On Friday the UN Human Rights Committee said it was disturbed about reports of ill-treatment of prisoners under interrogation, executions and torture in Chechnya as well as the closure of independent television and newspapers.

"We were certainly concerned about a substantial number of things and it's quite a long list," said Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the members of the 18-strong panel of legal experts.

The Committee said in its concluding report that it was "deeply concerned about continuing substantiated reports of human rights violations in the Chechen Republic, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture including rape".

It also warned that 54 police and military personnel had been prosecuted for crimes committed against civilians in Chechnya, but the sentences did "not appear to correspond with the gravity of the acts".

Russia "should ensure that abuse and violations are not committed with impunity ... including violations committed by military and law enforcement personnel during counter-terrorist operations", the panel said and called for investigation of all cases.

'Media protection'

The report also invited Moscow "to protect media pluralism and avoid state monopolisation of mass media, which would undermine the principle of freedom of expression".

Chechen attacks, like the theatre
attack were also criticised

It also cautioned against arrests of journalists on treason charges, although their work was of "legitimate public interest", according to the experts.

"There were ... very important areas of great concern to the Committee, areas where perhaps a more established judiciary would have been able to address some of the problems that we did have to deal with," Rodley told journalists.

The experts called for an "independent, in-depth investigation" into the police raid to free hundreds of hostages held by Chechen separatists in a Moscow theatre a year ago that ended up killing nearly 130 of them.

But the UN panel distanced themselves from violence by Chechen fighters.

'Terrorist activities'

"Some of the activities by those working through armed means to achieve the independence of Chechnya would have to be defined as terrorist by any stretch of the imagination, such as the Dubrovka theatre hostage situation," Rodley said.

Tougher conditions for women in Russia, including poverty, domestic violence and a "marked" difference in wages between men and women were also targeted in the report.

But the final observations praised legislative progress in Russia in recent years and efforts to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

The UN Committee checks on the application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been signed by 151 countries including Russia.