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Chechnya: Prague Hearing Casts Spotlight On Rights Violations

  • Jeremy Bransten

In a Renaissance palace set amid the quiet, manicured gardens of Prague Castle, tales of war, killing and abominable brutality were told last week. The subject: Chechnya. The occasion: a public hearing to examine allegations of war crimes and human rights violations by Russian forces in the war-torn republic. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports on the proceedings.

Prague, 31 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Far removed from the chaos of the battlefield, a public hearing on Chechnya provided an opportunity to examine Russia's conduct in Chechnya, based on eyewitness testimony and videotaped evidence.

The hearing last week (26 May) was organized by the Czech Republic's People in Need foundation, which has been active in helping civilian victims of the Chechen war. The group showed graphic video footage of atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces in Chechnya and presented eyewitness testimony.

The conclusion, as expressed by Oleg Orlov -- who heads Russia's respected Memorial human rights association -- is that the Russian government is misleading the public by calling the Chechnya conflict a well-targeted anti-terrorist campaign.

Orlov said the operation is a full-scale war that has already cost thousands of innocent civilian lives. He said Russian military commanders are conducting their campaign with total disregard for Chechnya's civilian population. Worse, Orlov and other speakers said reports that contract soldiers and special Russian police units have terrorized and murdered Chechen civilians are well-documented and corroborated in numerous instances.

"If this were an anti-terrorist operation, such an operation would have one obligatory and distinguishing feature and that is, a careful selection of targets. The aim of an anti-terrorist operation must be, above all, the defense of the population and only as a second priority the isolation and liquidation of the terrorists. What do we see in reality? The exact opposite. From the very beginning and up to the present time, the operation conducted by Russia's armed forces in Chechnya is distinguished by one important characteristic: its lack of discrimination."

Orlov gave examples of Russian military raids which have claimed scores and sometimes hundreds of civilian lives. He said that Russian forces, when pursuing even a single suspected Chechen fighter, are capable of killing masses of civilians in the surrounding area. He described one such incident, which occurred last October, when Russian forces were in hot pursuit of rebel Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. The commander was never caught, but countless civilians got battered in the crossfire. Orlov:

"On 27 October, the Russian media reported that Shamil Basayev's house was rocketed. They said the house was destroyed, that Shamil Basayev himself survived and that some of his bodyguards were killed. This was presented as a successful Russian military operation. But what they did not tell us was that those rocket attacks and subsequent bombing raids destroyed the entire surrounding neighborhood. No fewer than five buildings with 12 apartments apiece were destroyed, one five-story apartment building was wrecked, a whole block of one-floor apartment buildings were shattered, a market and a taxi stand together with all its cars, passengers and drivers were destroyed."

Such operations, Orlov said, happen in Chechnya on almost a daily basis. The bodies of dead Chechen civilians are often tallied as "rebel" casualties by the military, to raise the body count and make the war appear a success.

Since the Kremlin has blocked off journalists' access to Chechnya, Orlov and his colleagues rely on in-depth interviews with Chechen refugees arriving in neighboring Ingushetia to piece together the side of the story not being told by the Russian media in Chechnya. So far, field workers from Memorial and Human Rights Watch -- a respected Western human rights organization -- have collected detailed evidence of alleged war crimes by Russian forces from more than 750 people. They have also spoken to Russian soldiers who are shocked by the carnage they are ordered to carry out in Chechnya.

Compelling evidence at the Prague hearings came from a Chechen civilian who saw his three brothers massacred in the village of Komsomolskoye in March, while Russian forces destroyed the settlement in their pursuit of Chechen fighters. Again, the Chechen fighters were not caught in the operation, but scores of Chechen civilians lost their lives.

The Russian military's indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilian areas throughout Chechnya contravenes Russia's own constitution as well as international treaties governing the conduct of war. That is the conclusion of many human rights specialists -- including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

But the most disturbing aspect of Russia's intervention in Chechnya is the numerous accounts of torture and killings allegedly conducted by Russian forces in detention camps and civilian settlements. Orlov said much of this dirty work is done by paid mercenaries, known in Russian as "kontraktniki," as well as by special police units normally used to put down riots in prisons.

Diederik Lohman, head of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow, screened a graphic video at the hearing, showing the aftermath of one such rampage of looting and killing by "kontraktniki." The raid was conducted on 5 February in the suburb of Grozny known as Noviye Aldi. The video was shot by surviving villagers themselves, who detailed how the mercenaries went from house to house, demanding that the villagers give them whatever precious metals they had -- even gold teeth -- as well as money, alcohol and other loot, in exchange for sparing their lives.

But those left in Chechen towns and villages are the old and infirm -- the poor. Everyone who could, left at the start of the fighting. So when the mercenaries descended on Noviye Aldi, villagers had little money to bribe them. Over 80 of them -- including many old men and women -- paid the ultimate price. The video showed piles of bodies, mutilated in gruesome ways -- left as they were felled by the "kontraktniki." The survivors told their tale:

Weeping woman: "My sons! They were guilty of nothing!"

Man with woman weeping in background: "And this all happened after we went up to the Russian soldiers and told them to come to Aldi, that there were no Chechen fighters here. And this is what they did when they arrived -- you can see it all. It was on the 5th of February 2000. Drunk soldiers came in the middle of the day and committed genocide."

The video could serve as a unique and detailed piece of evidence if war crimes trials are ever held on Chechnya. Orlov wondered aloud how those responsible for such atrocities could return to civilian life in other parts of Russia.

"Terrible crimes are being committed by law enforcement officers -- namely, by special police units sent from the various regions of Russia to Chechnya. It is terrible on many counts. And one can only imagine how these people will uphold law and order when they return to their home regions all over Russia, after having gorged on blood here, so to speak."

Last week's Prague hearings directly challenged President Vladimir Putin's assertion that no civilian lives are being deliberately imperiled in Chechnya. Western politicians have repeatedly called on Russian authorities to halt their deadly campaign in the republic and investigate allegations of human rights violations.

Moscow has paid lip service to Western concerns by appointing its own human rights commissioner for Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov. But so far, Kalamanov has done little more than accuse Western politicians of bias.

On the few occasions when Moscow has allowed foreign delegations from the OSCE and Council of Europe to travel to the republic, the visits have been carefully choreographed. When the UN's Mary Robinson complained after her visit in April that she had not been given free access to the villages and detention camps she wanted to inspect, Kalamanov publicly accused her of lying.

Czech President Vaclav Havel -- for many years known as the conscience of his nation thanks to his dissident writings and years spent in prison as a defender of human rights -- closed the day's proceedings by remarking that the West should seek to integrate Russia into the family of stable, democratic nations.

Havel said Western leaders do Russia a great disservice if they set special, lower standards for Russia.

"Russia faces a formidable task to define itself in some way, to find its identity, to find its relationship to other nationalities, and to be able to ask them whether they want to live together in one empire. This is a formidable task, and I think we will help Russia to complete it only if we tell Russia the truth about what we think of its actions."

Havel said Russia must be treated as an equal -- but an equal in every sense of the word. When Moscow grossly violates human rights standards, it must be held accountable. And in Chechnya, Havel said, there is little doubt the Russian leadership must account for a lot.