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Russia: Human Rights Watchdog Visits Chechnya

The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles heads to the breakaway republic of Chechnya today amid new allegations of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. Gil-Robles, who arrived in Russia yesterday for a five-day visit, will be investigating reports of a mass grave discovered 24 February in a suburb of the Chechen capital city Grozny. He has also vowed to look into reports by a Moscow journalist that Russian soldiers have been using deep pits dug into the earth to hold Chechen civilians captive. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that these latest allegations of abuses by Russian troops has the West focusing once again on the issue of human rights in Chechnya.

Moscow, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's arrival in Chechnya of the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles comes as Russian officials are hotly denying new allegations that Russian troops stationed in the breakaway republic routinely abuse Chechen civilians.

Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the liberal oppositionist "Novaya Gazeta" weekly newspaper, told reporters last week that Russian soldiers were using excavated pits dug deep into the earth to hold Chechen civilians captive.

The journalist said she discovered the pits during a visit to the southeastern town of Vedeno. Residents there, in addition to suffering from rampant tuberculosis and extreme food shortages, complained that Russian troops were running a filtration camp at a military base in the nearby town of Khatuny.

Politkovskaya reported civilians as saying they were routinely taken to the camp and held hostage in six-meter-deep outdoor pits until family members paid a ransom. In the latest issue of "Novaya Gazeta" the journalist describes the case of an elderly woman who was held for 12 days in one such pit and regularly tortured with electric current. A young man who had also been held captive in a pit told Politkovskaya he had been gang-raped by Russian soldiers. Politkovskaya told RFE/RL's Russian Service that a Russian commander at the Khatuny base confirmed much of the locals' allegations:

"I met with the commander who showed me the pits. Of course I was extremely surprised by these pits -- up until the last moment I had the feeling that [the Chechens] must have been exaggerating. But I saw [the pits] with my own eyes. They were exactly like the descriptions, which turned out not to be exaggerations after all. The commander told me how the pits had come to be created. He said they had been dug for garbage disposal. But then the commander of the federal troops [in Chechnya], [Valery] Baranov arrived and said 'your prisoners should be in the pits!' And obeying the order, [the commander] turned the pits for garbage into pits for people."

Politkovskaya's allegations came days after she herself was detained by Russian soldiers. The journalist was detained 20 February while trying to leave the Khatuny base after being shown the field pits, apparently for failing to carry the proper documents. She says the harsh treatment she received during her two-day detention convinced her that the complaints by Chechen civilians about Russian troops were "not lies." Politkovskaya says after being detained on what she was told were "orders from above" she was subjected to an hours-long interrogation under what she called "severe psychological pressure":

"Then [the interrogator] says 'Get up, let's go, I'm taking you to be executed.' By then, after all that questioning, it was completely dark outside. He takes me somewhere, but I don't see where. And then all of a sudden there's an explosion of flames with a horrible noise. It turned out that I was taken to stand right under a rocket launcher. I had never stood under a rocket launcher before. It makes a very loud noise and I must say that it had an enormous psychological effect on me. [I was] sure that while the noise lasted...I was sure that I was going to be shot."

Politkovskaya says she was then placed in a bunker and left to spend the night. The next day she was brought to a Russian military base in Khankala, where she was finally released 22 February. Russian officials have been quick to deny Politkovskaya's allegations that she was subjected to a mock execution as well as her reports that Chechen civilians have been held in field pits at the Khatuny military base. Vsevolod Chernov, the chief prosecutor in Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, said Politkovskaya's claims about the pits showed certain "inaccuracies."

Human Rights Commissioner Gil-Robles, however, has promised to look into the allegations about the field pits during his two-day visit to Chechnya. He is also investigating reports about a mass grave discovered 24 February in an abandoned suburb of the Chechen capital city Grozny. More than a dozen bodies were found in the former resort area of Dachny.

In an interview yesterday with a Moscow radio station, Gil-Robles said Russian prosecutors told him 16 bodies had been found and that a full investigation was under way. Military officials have suggested the victims may have died in inter-clan fighting or rebel kidnappings, but some media reports have claimed that Russian troops are responsible for the killings.

Gil-Robles' visit to Russia coincides with the release yesterday of a U.S. State Department annual report accusing Russian security forces of repeated human rights abuses against Chechens during the 17-month war.