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Russia: U.S. Congressional Panel Criticizes Putin Over Chechnya

Washington may be focused on Iraq, but a congressional agency found time yesterday to criticize Russian President Vladmir Putin over what it called Moscow's "egregious violations of humanitarian law" in Chechnya.

Washington, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights advocates told a U.S. congressional panel yesterday that Russia is increasing its human rights violations in Chechnya and urged the world community to put pressure on Moscow.

Their remarks came in testimony at a briefing held yesterday by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the federal government which monitors the respect and abuses of human rights among countries agreeing to the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine senators, nine representatives, and one official each from the State, Defense, and Commerce Departments.

Ron McNamara, the commission's deputy chief of staff, opened the hearing in Washington by criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

McNamara said it was "ironic" that Putin recently criticized the conduct of U.S. troops in Iraq despite the fact that Russian forces regularly conduct sweeps that result in the detention, torture, and disappearance of innocent Chechen civilians.

"From the reports of credible and courageous human rights activists, such as our panelists, it is clear that the most egregious violations of international humanitarian law anywhere in the OSCE region are occurring in Chechnya today," McNamara said.

The OSCE, the world's largest regional security organization, focuses on human rights and democracy. It is comprised of 55 states in Europe, Central Asia, and North America.

McNamara also urged Russia to allow the OSCE to resume operations in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, where Moscow has been battling separatists for nearly a decade. Moscow has shut the organization's Chechen office, saying its critical view of human rights abuses was politically motivated. The hearing took place as OSCE representatives met with Russian officials in Moscow yesterday to discuss the issue.

Eliza Moussaeva is the director of the Ingushetia branch of Russian human rights group Memorial. She told the panel that Russian forces have recently changed their tactics in Chechnya from daytime sweeps of civilian homes in towns and villages to armed night raids.

The result, Moussaeva said, is that it has become much harder to track down those civilians that disappear after the sweeps. She said relatives cannot identify the Russian troops behind them since they are now masked and working at night.

Moussaeva, a psychologist who was given the Sakharov Freedom Award by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee last year, said that the number of Chechen civilians abducted by Russian forces in the first three months of 2003 had risen to 119, compared to 82 in the same period in 2002.

"Paradoxically, after the [previous] 'cleansing' operations, it was somehow easier to trace the relatives who had been abducted. But now after the night raids, it's becoming impossible to do so," she said.

Yesterday, a recently appointed top Chechen official called for a halt to kidnappings of citizens by Russian troops and pro-Russian police. Alu Alkhanov, the interior minister for the pro-Russian administration, said that 46 people had been abducted, two of them in the previous 24 hours, since the 23 March constitutional referendum presented by Moscow as proof that security had been restored to the republic.

Moussaeva said that Russian media reporting of the kidnappings has been inaccurate. She said that in January, a mass grave was found near a town called Petropalavska. But although Russian television reported the bodies found there had been abducted by Chechen rebels, she said several eyewitnesses said they had in fact been killed by Russian forces.

Bela Tsugaeva, the information manager for the charity group World Vision, also works in Ingushetia near the Chechen border, primarily with displaced Chechen civilians. She told the hearing that Russian forces have been applying heavy pressure on the refugees, who number some 92,000, to return to Chechnya despite the fact that they lack security and homes there.

Tsugaeva said the pressure included psychological forms, such as the stationing of Russian troops near refugee camps and telling refugees that if they don't go back, they will be accused of having ties to rebels, and thus will be dealt with as rebels.

But Amnesty International's Maureen Greenwood said that Russia had withdrawn some of that pressure at the end of last year only because of international pressure to do so. But now, things may be changing, she said. "Particularly now that it's spring, we're concerned that they may close the five remaining tent camps and force those people to go back to Chechnya."

Greenwood urged the international community to keep up the pressure on Moscow, adding: "First, as far as we are aware, there is not adequate infrastructure in Chechnya for those persons to be forced back, in terms of housing, electricity, heat. But secondly, they lack security guarantees. And as long as the ongoing extra-judicial executions, disappearances, night raids, torture, and impunity continue, they lack adequate security guarantees in order to be pushed back."

She added that Amnesty International is concerned about the targeting of innocent people by Chechen rebels as well, and said both sides appeared to be operating with impunity.

Many refugees in Ingushetia have already returned to Chechnya. But the United Nations office for Russia said in January that 19,000 Chechen refugees were still living in tent camps in Ingushetia. Thousands of others are believed to be living with local hosts, renting rooms or sheltering in abandoned buildings.

The panelists deplored the recent defeat of a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that would have demanded that Russia account for reports of disappearances, torture, and executions in Chechnya.

Greenwood urged Washington to keep up its pressure on Russia over Chechnya, and to continue current funding levels for Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). And she urged Moscow to open up Chechnya to NGOs, as well as to the UN's representative for Chechnya and the OSCE.