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Chechnya: UN Declines To Censure Russia Over Rights Abuses

The top United Nations rights body today rejected a resolution that would have censured Russia for violations in Chechnya. Rights defenders in Moscow, meanwhile, criticize the international community for failing to pressure Moscow over its brutal conflict in the breakaway region. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports, a group of them met today to present a case to the country's Supreme Court on the unlawfulness of a referendum carried out in the region last month.

Moscow, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the second year in a row, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has refused to pass a resolution condemning Russia for its actions in Chechnya.

Today's move seemingly boosts Moscow's argument that a referendum it carried out in the breakaway North Caucasus region last month signaled the start of a political solution leading to peace.

Liberal Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev told reporters ahead of the vote today that Western democracy has "fallen asleep" over its response to Moscow's intractable, three-and-a-half-year conflict in the troubled region. He said Western democracy "is well-nourished by its own prosperity. It feels comfortable. It is lazy and shortsighted."

Kovalev and other rights defenders met today to discuss a case filed at the country's Supreme Court that calls last month's referendum unlawful.

The plebiscite overwhelmingly approved a new, Kremlin-drafted constitution for Chechnya.

Lev Ponomarev, whose For Human Rights group filed the case on 1 April, says that in carrying out the referendum, the government violated Russian law by attempting to change regional legislation.

"The president says nothing extraordinary is going on in Chechnya, that there's only a counterterrorist operation going on there. There's no need to introduce martial law, and the war is essentially over. If that's the case, Chechnya is a normal subject of the Russian Federation. According to Russian legislation, in that case, Chechnya's new constitution has to be drafted by the Chechen parliament."

Ponomarev also says it is illegal to conduct voting in what is essentially a war zone, despite Russian government claims that its campaign is over. He says the presence of Russian soldiers, roadblocks, and other conditions influenced voting.

"If you ask any lawyer in Russia who knows at least something about constitutional law and our legislation, almost every one would say right away that carrying out the referendum in Chechnya in the manner it was passed is illegal. So we're essentially walking through an open door" by filing a case whose legitimacy is obvious.

But Ponomarev adds that practically any lawyer in Russia would also say the case has almost no chance of success.

Duma Deputy Kovalev says that even if the case has virtually no prospects it still represents an important step.

"Every one of our steps showing that we are not a herd of sheep -- that we are not, excuse me, the State Duma of the Russian Federation, ready to support every initiative [of the president] -- is an event that carries public significance."

Despite his criticism, Kovalev says the international community does, at times, "wake up." He praises a resolution passed this month by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe -- the continent's main human rights watchdog -- calling for the creation of a war crimes tribunal if the situation in Chechnya does not improve.

Moscow angrily denounced the suggestion as "politically harmful."

Chechnya's new constitution subordinates the breakaway region as an "inseparable and integral" part of Russia.

Around 96 percent of those taking part in the referendum supported its passage. In response to two additional questions on elections, some 95 percent voted for holding presidential elections in six months; 96 percent approved parliamentary elections later in the year.

The government reported a total turnout of more than 80 percent of eligible voters.

President Vladimir Putin said after the voting that Chechens had "made their choice for peace and development together with Russia."

But groups monitoring the referendum disputed the figures. Kovalev says they smack of falsified Soviet-era statistics, showing the Kremlin does not respect the public enough to make them seem plausible.

The government's hopes that the referendum would silence international criticism over its actions in Chechnya have meanwhile seen mixed results.

The European Union supported the resolution rejected today. It voiced "deep concern" over the alleged abuses in Chechnya.

But the EU also told Russia yesterday that it does see signs of progress in Moscow's policy toward Chechnya, even while asking for more action to improve human rights, Reuters reported.

Human Rights Watch, citing a leaked government document, said this week that disappearances, killings, and torture continue unabated in Chechnya. HRW quotes the report as saying more than 1,100 civilians were killed in the region last year.

Russian officials deny the report's existence. Putin's envoy for human rights in Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, denounced the New York-based rights group as "an extremist organization spreading totalitarian notions about Europe's democratic values," Interfax reported.

Ahead of the UN vote today, Chechen advocates said the war in Iraq has made it more difficult to pressure Russia over Chechnya, with France especially muting its criticism of Moscow, which is a Paris ally in opposition to the U.S.-led campaign.

Kremlin critics say the only way forward to a political solution is talks with separatist rebels headed by Aslan Maskhadov. But the government resolutely refuses to negotiate with Maskhadov, elected Chechen president in 1997 in voting recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moscow often calls Maskhadov and his followers "bandits" and "terrorists."

Critics have opposed Chechnya's constitution for trying to legitimize the war and giving the federal government much more sway over Chechnya than other regions.

The details of Moscow's plans for Chechnya's future are as yet unclear. In addition to setting the date for presidential elections -- which the Central Elections Commission says could take place in December or in March 2004 -- Putin must now move forward with plans to negotiate a federal treaty with Chechnya that will hammer out the specifics of its status and establish the structure of its administration.

Meanwhile, as a counter to possible moves toward an international commission, presidential rights envoy Sultygov promised yesterday that the government would set up its own commission to investigate abuses by both rebels and Russian soldiers.