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Chechnya: Evidence Of Human Rights Abuses Trickles Out

By Bea Hogan

Despite Russia's virtual information blockade around Chechnya, some reports of war crimes and civilian abuse by Russian forces have trickled out. Our correspondent Bea Hogan reports that Russia is not allowing international agencies concerned with human rights to operate in the republic.

New York, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The restrictions the Russian government has levied on media access to Chechnya have made it difficult to assess the toll of the Russian military campaign on civilians. But accounts given by refugees and the few journalists reporting from the fighting zone indicate serious violations of human rights.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week in Moscow urged acting Russian President Vladimir Putin to use restraint while rooting out Chechen fighters.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who visited Moscow after Annan, also expressed concern for Chechen civilians during her talks with Putin.

Both foreign and Russian journalists seeking to cover the conflict have run into roadblocks. Although Russian law gives journalists access to the entire Russian territory and no state of emergency has officially been declared in Chechnya, journalists must secure special accreditation to report on the conflict. One of the versions the Russian government has given for its arrest of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky was that he lacked accreditation.

But even with accreditation, journalists must stay with a military escort. Critics contend that Russia's limiting of access to the war zone is a deliberate attempt to skew coverage towards the Russian perspective. Deiterik Lohman of the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch explains:

"I think the Ministry of Defense uses the security situation in Chechnya as a pretext for not allowing groups like us and like critical journalists in to do their own investigation into what is going on."

Mikhail Shurgalin, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, denies the charge that his government has manipulated the media.

"The anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya is conceived not to get better access for correspondents or humanitarian workers to the area. The main objective is to crush terrorists. And, of course, when the Ministry of Defense sets up priorities, it thinks of first things first, and other important things second."

Allowing outsiders to witness military maneuvers, says Shurgalin, would endanger the lives of Russian soldiers.

While a few journalists do enter the conflict area under supervision, human rights groups have been forced to stand on the sidelines. Russia's Ministry of Defense denied Human Rights Watch's application for access to Chechnya, even though the group operated within the republic during the last war.

During this current conflict, human right groups have decamped in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. There, investigators gather information from their interviews with refugees crossing the border. Lohman says the more than 200,000 refugees include numerous eyewitnesses to war crimes, including rapes and extra-judicial executions.

Lohman told our correspondent that Human Rights Watch has received mounting evidence of war crimes being committed by the Russian forces in Chechnya. He said the Russian side is trying to use the current information blockade to make sure that nobody knows about these abuses.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 20,000 civilians are still trapped in the capital city of Grozny.

Because journalists and human rights groups have had limited access to the war zone, the plight of these civilians is hard to assess. Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denber told RFE/RL about her group's efforts to secure an international presence to monitor the conflict.

"We're pressing very hard for an international diplomatic presence in Ingushetia that would gather information about human rights abuses, among other things, and would take these issues up directly with the Russian government and would inform their home governments directly about what is happening, because there is a terrible information blockade surrounding this conflict."

Shurgalin of the Russian Embassy in Washington says that discussions are under way to admit such an international humanitarian presence into Chechnya. He says that applications from organizations such as the Red Cross are being considered on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, he says, it is the Russian government that will accept and distribute any humanitarian aid intended for civilians.