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Russia: Critics Say Offer Of Chechen Amnesty Is Meaningless

Russia's State Duma has given initial approval to a bill granting amnesty to certain categories of people involved in the Chechen war. The Kremlin says the amnesty -- the fourth of its kind to date -- is a step toward peace, RFE/RL reports. But some Russian rights groups say it is meaningless and that most Chechen rebels will still be open to prosecution. The amnesty, they say, could instead benefit Russian soldiers accused of committing atrocities and local politicians involved in war profiteering.

Prague, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a first reading yesterday, Russia's State Duma -- the lower house of parliament -- gave overwhelming approval to a presidential amnesty bill for war-torn Chechnya.

Legislators voted 354 to 18 in favor of the proposal, which would offer amnesty to certain Chechen fighters who lay down their arms by 1 September.

The bill, which must go through two more readings, seems certain to win final parliamentary approval. But critics say its vague language and numerous exception clauses make it largely meaningless. They fear it will do little to end the fighting in the separatist republic and could actually absolve individuals who should face justice for their crimes.

The document amnesties people who "jeopardized public safety" in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, from 12 December 1993 -- when the first Russian military offensive began -- to 1 September 2003, when Chechen rebels are meant to lay down their arms.

Those guilty of crimes such as murder, rape, premeditated attacks, banditry, kidnapping, killing, or even attempting to kill a policeman will not be eligible.

What this means, critics say, is that the amnesty will exclude all rebel commanders and most armed separatist soldiers -- the very people the bill says it wants to encourage to return to civilian life.

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, is skeptical about the proposed amnesty. "It practically doesn't apply to anybody. If a man was in the mountains with a rifle he is going to have to prove that he was working as a cook or something for the past two-three years and never took a shot at anyone. This, of course, makes the amnesty very limiting," Piontkovsky says.

Even more important, says Piontkovsky, is the fact that in the current lawless climate in Chechnya, a paper amnesty issued by Moscow carries little weight. Chechen rebels will not desert their commanders and give up their weapons as long as they fear retaliation from their comrades-in-arms or rival fighters. Many rebels were killed in such circumstances following a previous amnesty in December 1999, a few months after the beginning of Russia's second war in the republic.

"Every day in Chechnya extrajudicial punishments take place, people disappear. What kind of amnesty is going to protect someone who can be kidnapped by unknown assailants at night, with his mutilated corpse subsequently ransomed to his relatives? This isn't something that human rights activists claim is happening, it has been officially admitted by the Russian authorities, by the prosecutor-general of Chechnya. In his latest statement, he said 300 people had disappeared in Chechnya in the year 2003. What kind of stimulus can the amnesty have when someone who may want to leave the rebel fighters is far more concerned by the possibility of extrajudicial revenge than by any kind of action by the courts that will be processing the amnesty?" Piontkovsky says.

Moscow-based journalist Sanobar Shermatova, who has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "Moscow News," says it is important to remember that at this point, Chechnya is wracked not only by a war between Russian forces and Chechen separatists, but by factional fighting among Chechen clans themselves.

Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, represents one of those clans and until other clan leaders come to a personal understanding with him, Shermatova says, any amnesty will remain theoretical.

"I think the federal law, of course, sets down some kind of legal foundation but the real amnesty will have to go through the Chechen leadership, through the Chechens themselves. If, let's say, some fighters have bad relations or a conflict with Kadyrov, then they are not going to lay down their arms and return to civilian life, because they understand that this law won't save them," Shermatova says.

As the campaign heats up for planned elections this December for a new Chechen leader, the amnesty will strengthen Kadyrov's hand and create additional tensions with his rivals. As deputies from the liberal Yabloko faction noted in yesterday's Duma debate in Moscow, many people around Kadyrov in the current Chechen administration, who stand accused of involvement in shady financial dealings and war profiteering, could be absolved from prosecution by the bill. They, as well as Russian soldiers who took part in so-called "mopping up" operations against Chechen rebels could end up being the main beneficiaries of this amnesty.

Overall, Shermatova says prospects for peace and stability in Chechnya remain distant since basic issues have yet to be addressed.

"The main factors that could bring peace to Chechnya are the creation of an effective civilian government, the creation of effective law-enforcement organs and the withdrawal of surplus Russian federal forces from the republic. Those who remain should sit in barracks and come under civilian laws. Today, we see that the civilian government of Chechnya is ineffective, federal forces do not answer to civilian authorities and there is a continuation of this state of no peace, no war. It is a very unstable situation that could explode at any moment."

Duma deputies are due to give the amnesty bill a second reading on 2 June, with a third and final reading set for 6 June at the latest.