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Russia: Chechens Fear Abuses In Moscow's Crackdown On Terrorism

One by-product of last week's hostage crisis in Moscow appears to be a crackdown on Chechens and other Caucasian minorities in the Russian capital. Officials say they are expanding arrests of suspected terrorists, but minorities fear this will lead to an increase in arbitrary detentions and other human rights abuses.

Moscow, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Chechens living in Russia say they are increasingly subject to human rights violations in the fallout of last week's hostage crisis.

They accuse police of harassment and arbitrary arrests after President Vladimir Putin told law enforcers to crack down on terrorists.

Putin has ordered Russia's security agencies to revise the country's national-security concept after the crisis last week in which heavily armed Chechen rebels took around 800 people hostage for 58 hours in a Moscow theater. The crisis was later resolved when Russian special forces raided the theater. Hundreds of lives were saved, but around 120 hostages died in the action.

Speaking to cabinet ministers on 28 October, Putin took an uncompromising line. "International terrorism is becoming bolder, acting more cruelly, and, here and there around the world, threats are heard from terrorists to use means comparable to weapons of mass destruction," Putin said.

Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said on 29 October that the government was already acting. "Today, the Interior Ministry has been taking unprecedented actions to uncover a terrorist network operating in Moscow and the surrounding region. We've already detained several dozen people suspected of involvement in the hostage taking," Gryzlov said.

"Izvestiya" daily quoted an officer in the elite Alfa special-forces group saying that a large security operation was under way in Moscow and Chechnya.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov is a Duma deputy and a prominent leader of the Chechen community in Moscow who held negotiations last week with the hostage takers. He told reporters that instead of mounting a real antiterrorist operation, law enforcers are instead risking fanning anti-Chechen feeling in Russia and making arbitrary arrests. "An anti-Chechen hysteria is beginning after all and was begun precisely by members of law-enforcement agencies. It is they who give information to journalists that people are being detained, although there is the presumption of innocence and secret investigations. But when a Chechen is arrested even under suspicion -- say he crossed the street the wrong way -- it always seems to be necessary to mention that someone of Chechen nationality has been arrested and so on, that is, the fuelling of conflict between nationalities is going on," Aslakhanov said.

Moscow residents are still subject to Soviet-era registration requirements, and Chechen leaders say these requirements increasingly are being used as a pretense to search the apartments of Chechens.

That, Aslakhanov said, runs counter to the president's own words. "[According to the] demands of the president of the Russian Federation -- you remember that he announced this -- Russian Chechens are absolutely not to blame and not part of terrorist operations, and they are citizens of the Russian Federation and their rights must be protected," Aslakhanov said.

In an effort to deflect abuses and criticisms, a number of Chechens in Moscow condemned the siege and announced they would take the place of hostages during the standoff. A group of prominent Chechens also said they would establish a fund to help victims' families.

Aslakhanov, who said he plans to send telegrams to law-enforcement agencies and the president calling attention to the problem, says the entreaties have been ignored.

Irene Khan, the secretary-general of human rights group Amnesty International, said abuse of Chechens and other minorities is part of what she called a "gross abuse and violation of human rights and international humanitarian law" in Russia. Speaking on 29 October at a press conference in Moscow, she said ordinary people's human rights are often "flagrantly disrespected" by the country's authorities. "Minorities and foreigners are often the victims of discriminatory policing, harassment, and extortion by the very people who are supposed to protect them," Khan said.

Khan said the human rights problem in Russia is as serious as ever following the hostage crisis. "The so-called war against terrorism must not be used to divert attention from the denial of justice which permeates all aspects of Russian society. It must not be used as an excuse to encourage more human rights violations in Chechnya. It must not lead to a racist backlash victimizing innocent Chechens and other ethnic and religious minorities," Khan said.

Russian-Chechen disputes date back at least 150 years, when Chechens fought tsarist armies seeking to conquer the North Caucasus region.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen population in 1941 after accusing Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis. Other Caucasus peoples suffered the same fate.

Following the collapse of the communist regime, Chechen leader Djokhar Dudaev declared independence from Russia. A wave of popular anti-Chechen sentiment preceded then-President Boris Yeltsin's launch of Moscow's first campaign in Chechnya in 1994 to bring it firmly under Moscow's control.

Russian forces took the capital Grozny at great cost but were dislodged in 1996, after which the breakaway republic enjoyed de facto independence.

Putin -- prime minister at the time -- launched a second conflict in 1999 after Chechen rebels staged incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Daghestan. A series of apartment-building bombings in Russia that killed around 300 people were also blamed on Chechens despite the lack of any convincing proof.

Russia then saw another tide of anti-Chechen feeling, with police arbitrarily arresting dark-skinned residents and deporting some of them out of the capital.