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Chechnya: Rights Situation May Be Improving

  • Liz Fuller

(RFE/RL) June 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The current war in Chechnya that began in the fall of 1999 has, to a far greater degree than the 1994-96 conflict, been accompanied by systematic, widespread, and egregious human rights violations committed by both the Russian military and pro-Moscow Chechen forces.


Russian and international human rights watchdogs have compiled detailed dossiers chronicling blanket search operations; arbitrary arrests; abductions for ransom; and the use of torture against, and even the summary execution of, persons suspected of sympathizing with or abetting resistance forces.

Chechen websites have reported cases of children being apprehended and killed and their internal organs removed before the mutilated bodies were dumped.

By far the most widespread abuse is that of the abduction of Chechen noncombatant civilians, a practice that Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin described in 2004 as "the main [human rights] problem" in Chechnya, and which the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005 designated "a crime against humanity."

Both HRW and Amnesty International have documented dozens of individual cases in which survivors describe the abuses to which they were subjected by their abductors, or family members chronicle their efforts to locate, and secure the release of, the "disappeared."

Murky Picture


Forming a comprehensive picture of the extent of forced disappearances and attempting to identify the perpetrators is difficult in light of relatives' reluctance either to jeopardize their efforts to locate and secure the release of their loved ones, or to invite retribution by naming those persons believed to be responsible.

Citing data collected by the Russian human rights center Memorial that monitors only roughly one-fourth of the total area of Chechnya, HRW estimated in early 2005 that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were snatched in Chechnya in the five years since October 1999. Some of those apprehended were subsequently released, many after having been subjected to torture; others disappeared without trace.

Chechen websites have, in addition, reported cases in which children have been apprehended and killed and their internal organs removed -- presumably to sell for transplant -- before the mutilated bodies were dumped.

In the run-up to, and during the early years of the second Chechen war, the abduction cases that made headlines were generally those involving foreigners snatched for ransom by radical Chechen militants. But more recently, the victims have been overwhelmingly Chechens. Russian and Chechen human rights activists say that at least three agencies have resorted to such abductions: the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian federal forces, and the various pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces.

The first documentary evidence of the Russian military's involvement in such human rights abuses surfaced in early 2003. It took the form of a confidential report compiled by Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko, who concluded that dozens, if not hundreds of federal soldiers and police were systematically engaging in the abduction and murder of civilians, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 April 2003.

At the same time "Le Monde" and "La Liberation" published what they claimed were extracts from a Chechen government report on such abuses. Russian officials immediately denied that any such Chechen government report existed. But according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the statistics cited by Kravchenko and the two French newspapers were very similar.

Statistical Decline


Statistical data for the period 2002-March 2007 compiled by analysts writing for the website kavkaz-uzel.ru show two clear trends: a dramatic decline in the total number of abductions, from 544 in 2002 to 323 in 2005, 187 in 2006, and 16 for the first three months of this year.

It also shows parallel declines in the number of those abducted who are never found, either dead or alive (from 372 in 2002 to 128 in 2005, 63 in 2006, and three in 2007), and also in the number of persons found dead (81 in 2002, 25 in 2005, 11 in 2006, and one so far in 2007).

While the number of abductions reported on Chechen territory has apparently declined, the figure for neighboring Daghestan has increased sharply.

But the number of persons freed or ransomed grew from 91 in 2002 to 155 in 2005, but then fell to 94 in 2006 and 10 in 2007. The figure cited by kavkaz-uzel.ru for the number of abductions in 2004 -- 450 -- is slightly higher than the estimate for the same year by Memorial cited in the HRW report referred to above.

But kavkaz-uzel.ru's figure for 2003 (498) is lower than that Interfax attributed to pro-Moscow Deputy Prime Minister Movsur Khamidov in February 2004. On that occasion, Khamidov said 581 people were abducted in Chechnya the previous year, of whom 127 disappeared without trace, but he added that in some cases, relatives of Chechen resistance fighters may have reported their menfolk as having been abducted in order to deflect suspicion.

Security Force Involvement


At the same time, Khamidov admitted that some abductions are the work of the police or security forces. Svetlana Gannushkina of the Presidential Human Rights Commission estimated in December 2003, that the majority of such abductions are carried out by pro-Moscow police or members of the presidential security service then headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of then pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

Over the past few years, since the Russian authorities launched the process of "Chechenization" that entailed transferring primary responsibility for reimposing "order" in Chechnya from the Russian Interior Ministry to the various pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces, the proportion of human rights violations, including abductions, that can be attributed to the latter has grown incrementally.

A secret detention center in Grozny

In early 2005, Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, who at that time headed the combined federal forces in Chechnya, was quoted by "Russky kur'er" as admitting that "we have evidence" that both law-enforcement personnel and federal soldiers are involved in abductions, while Chechen Prosecutor-General Kravchenko estimated that up to 10 percent of such crimes are the work of those agencies.

In an apparent attempt to shield his former subordinates from accusations of engaging in human rights abuses, former Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, who was elected Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's successor in September 2004, four months after Kadyrov was killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny, said in August 2004 that police engaged in "special operations" should not wear masks, Interfax reported.

But subsequent bans on the wearing of masks, and on the use of vehicles with tinted glass windows or without license plates, were frequently ignored, and did little to restore the trust of the Chechen population in the law-enforcement agencies. In April 2005, at Alkhanov's behest, the Chechen government established an interdepartmental commission tasked with searching for persons reported missing. At the same time, Alkhanov deplored the very modest percentage of abductions -- just 8 percent -- in which the perpetrators are apprehended and brought to trial.

Influence Of Kadyrov


Memorial's Oleg Orlov was quoted by kavkaz-uzel.ru on May 24 as corroborating the decline in abductions in Chechnya since the beginning of 2007, a trend he attributed to orders issued to the various pro-Moscow Chechen security forces in January by Ramzan Kadyrov, then first deputy prime minister to desist from such abuses. Those orders were presumably part of a broader campaign to craft a new, more benevolent and less threatening image of the younger Kadyrov. But Kadyrov's personal reputation for sadism, and countless instances of police indifference at best to human suffering, and at worst arbitrary brutality, make a mockery of his repeated professed commitment to protecting the population's basic human rights.

While the number of abductions reported on Chechen territory has apparently declined, the figure for neighboring Daghestan has increased sharply. At a press conference in Moscow on June 15, members of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) cited data for southern Russia as a whole, and for Daghestan. That data showed 68 reported abductions in Daghestan in 2006, compared with 12 in North Ossetia, 10 in Ingushetia, and five each in Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on June 18.

By contrast, there have been nearly 20 abductions in Daghestan "over a very short period" this year, according to MHG chair Lyudmila Alekseeva. Meanwhile, in Ingushetia, which unlike Chechnya has not been the scene of constant fighting in recent years, abductions of young men appear to have begun in 2002, the year that former FSB General Murat Zyazikov succeeded Ruslan Aushev as president.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights issued a press release in June 2005 giving the number of reported abductions of Ingush during the three preceding years as one in 2002, nine in 2003, and 37 in 2004. Ingushetia's deputy prosecutor Rashid Ozdoyev, who became alarmed by and set about investigating such disappearances, collecting evidence of police involvement in 40 such cases, vanished himself without trace in March 2004, and is believed to have been detained and executed (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 28, 2004).

One of the participants in the multiple attacks by Chechen and Ingush militants on police targets in Ingushetia in June 2004 admitted that it was the disappearance, and his failure to discover the fate of, his brother that impelled him and hundreds of other young men to join the Chechen-led armed resistance. And coinciding with those June 2005 raids, Amnesty International released a report on human rights violations in both Chechnya and Ingushetia that registered "dozens" of disappearances in the latter republic in the early months of 2004 alone.

The Russian website regnum.ru on March 1 quoted Magomed Mutsolgov, who heads an organization that seeks to help relatives of persons who have been abducted, as citing a figure of 145 such disappearances in Ingushetia. He added that in most cases the perpetrators were members of the Combined Group of Forces deployed in the North Caucasus.

The Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov
Kadyrov dances at the reopening of Grozny Airport

Ever since his father, pro-Kremlin Chechen President Akhmed-Hadji Kadyrov was killed in a May 2004 bomb blast in Grozny, Ramzan Kadyrov has risen to prominence.

In March 2006, First Deputy Prime Minister Kadyrov, who heads a personal army of 10,000 heavily armed fighters, was named prime minister. His reign as premier has been characterized by divisions in the Chechen leadership and accusations of torture. But he has also been credited with improving living standards in the republic.

In October, he turned 30, clearing the way for running for president.


CHRONOLOGY

The fighting in Chechnya has raged, with short breaks, since 1994. It has brought misery, death, and destruction to the North Caucasus republic and to Russia as a whole. View an annotated timeline of the conflict.

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