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Chechnya: Rights Groups Praise European Court Decision

International and Russian rights groups today praised a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to hear six cases filed by Chechens accusing the Russian military of abuses in Chechnya. As RFE/RL reports, observers say the move might finally precipitate change in what is being called Europe's worst case of rights violations.

Moscow, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of Russian and international rights groups in Moscow today commended a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to hear six cases filed by Chechens alleging violations by Russian forces in the war-torn region.

Rights defenders said the move represented a significant if symbolic victory for Chechens who have long petitioned the international community to take seriously accusations that the Russian military is carrying out atrocities such as arbitrary detentions, summary executions, torture, and rape.

Bjorn Engesland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said the decision was a clear signal to Russia. "Being part of international institutions such as the Council of Europe also brings with it [legal] obligations. This is a clear example of what it means to be part of the Council of Europe: that if you violate and gravely abuse the human rights of your own citizens, and don't deal with it in a sufficient way within your own legal system, it will eventually be dealt with by the international human rights court in Strasbourg," Engesland said.

Two of the plaintiffs accuse Russian soldiers of torturing and executing family members in the Chechen capital Grozny in 2000. Another three complain that Russian planes bombed civilians fleeing the capital. The sixth alleges Russian forces killed his son and three nieces in a Chechen village in 2000.

Moscow launched its first post-Soviet conflict in Chechnya in 1994. It ended after a 1996 peace settlement but was reignited by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 1999 and continues with no end in sight.

Chechens and rights groups accuse Russian soldiers of harassing the local population and committing regular abuses, often during so-called "zachistki," or mopping-up operations. They also allege that Moscow is coercing refugees to return to their homes in the region, where the infrastructure has been devastated during the years of conflict.

Court spokesman Roderick Liddell told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the ruling on admissibility is only the first stage of the process and that it is unclear how long it will take to reach a decision in the cases. "It's impossible to say at this stage how long it will take to deliver judgment in these cases. I would say normally one would expect a judgment to follow the admissibility decision within one year to 18 months, but I've absolutely no means of guaranteeing that that would be the case in this instance," Liddell said.

The court, based in the French city of Strasbourg, is investigating another 100 complaints from Chechens for possible hearings, AFP reported.

Akhmed Zakaev, a top aide to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, said the Strasbourg court's decision to hear the six cases is inappropriate and doesn't go far enough. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service: "The Strasbourg court does not have the authority to bring to trial those who committed these terrible crimes. What is happening in the [Chechen] Republic does not call for financial compensation, because it is mainly murder, violence, and humiliation, which is impossible to compensate financially. For three or four years now, our leadership has been seeking the creation of an international committee to investigate these horrible crimes with the subsequent creation of an international tribunal that would put on trial the war criminals who committed those crimes."

Russian officials also criticized the decision. Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, Moscow's human rights ombudsman for Chechnya, accused the move of being politically motivated. "Unfortunately, some officials in the Council of Europe make a political game out of regular court deliberations," Interfax quoted Sultygov as saying. "They simply want to tell the world to see how everything in Russia is bad."

Valentina Melnikova is a leader of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees of Russia, which works to protect young men from abuses in the Russian military. She said Sultygov does not have the constitutional right to hinder the rights of Russian citizens to appeal to the court. Speaking during a Moscow news conference, during which the international Human Rights House Network umbrella group issued a statement condemning the war in Chechnya, Melnikova went on to praise the court decision as "good and right." "An appeal to the European Court [for human rights] is an open appeal to all states. It is an open investigation of the violations of these people's rights," Melnikova said.

Other rights defenders in Moscow said they hoped the court decision would help change the situation inside and outside Russia. Tatyana Lokshina, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the move was a positive step toward resolving the Chechnya issue. "We know of so many people who have been trying to appeal to Strasbourg. And it's a very symbolic thing that those cases will finally be considered. It is very important that the Chechen people continue to have hope in justice, continue to have hope in democratic values," Lokshina said.

Boris Altshuler, head of the Moscow-based Rights of the Child organization, said the European court's decision could help affect the government's stance on Chechnya. "Exactly this type of interference -- and the stronger, the better -- will help the Russian president develop at least some minimal control over his own armed forces and special forces, which he doesn't have today. They act autonomously from the president and Russia in their own financial interests. This whole nightmare comes from that," Altshuler said.

Aaron Rhodes is executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which unites groups based in a number of countries and has made Chechnya one of its priority issues. He said the court's decision might lead the international community to increase its opposition to the war in Chechnya. "If the cases are won, it would give legitimization to the cause of these victims. It would be a demonstration by independent and international judicial authorities that these crimes have actually taken place. And that will help, hopefully, to resolve the problem," Rhodes said.

Human Rights Watch this week called the war in Chechnya Europe's worst rights crisis. The organization criticized the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, for failing to adequately condemn Russia's conduct in Chechnya.

Last month, Moscow refused to extend the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor violations in Chechnya.