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Chechnya: Legal Expert Aims To Chronicle, Publicize War Crimes

By Liz Fuller and Aslan Doukaev (epa) As large-scale fighting subsides in Chechnya and people attempt to rebuild their lives, the issue of addressing the injustices of the protracted conflict looms large in the minds of its numerous victims.

With Russia's justice system often failing to redress the wrongs of the Chechen wars, people increasingly seek justice in international institutions. In one recent case, the European Court of Human Rights awarded a 72,000-euro ($111,331) compensation to a Chechen woman, Khadizhat Kaplanova, whose son and son-in-law went missing after a group of Russian servicemen abducted them from their family home in May 2001. A number of human rights groups have been cataloging such atrocities for many years now. Yet so far there has been no comprehensive study of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Chechnya over the past 14 years. RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service spoke recently to a Connecticut University scholar, Emma Gilligan, whose forthcoming book "War Crimes In Chechnya" examines the war crimes committed by Russian servicemen against the civilian population.

Asked how she developed an interest in events in Chechnya and why she decided to write a book on war crimes, Gilligan explained that she spent four years in Moscow researching and writing a book tracing the evolution of the Soviet human rights movement following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the course of that research, she developed an interest in the figure of Sergei Kovalyov and his engagement publicizing and protesting the 1994-96 Chechen war. Consequently, when the second war began in 1999, she was interested in the shift in the Russian government's ideological approach and how that shift affected the extent and type of violence on the ground. Her new book chronicles how the nature and intensity of military violence changed during the course of the fighting, and attempts to explain why.

Asked how one defines war crimes, and how and where to draw the dividing line between war crimes and crimes against humanity, Gilligan replied: "Obviously war crimes are certain crimes that happen during a particular phase of a conflict, and although the Russians have tended to call this an antiterrorist operation I think we can easily apply the Geneva Conventions to this war despite the fact that it was extremely asymmetrical. So [the focus is] war crimes I consider were perpetrated by the Russian armed forces, and also war crimes that I think were conducted by the Chechen forces themselves. I'm interested in looking at those in terms of the legal categories that currently exist."

As for crimes against humanity, Gilligan said she thinks this definition needs to be thought about more extensively in the context of the second war in Chechnya, and not only in regard to the forced disappearances, which she thinks were systematic and widespread enough to be categorized as a crime against humanity. She said she definitely thinks the initial bombing of Grozny and the surrounding villages from September 1999 through February-March 2000 ranks as a crime against humanity, given that it was systematic, it was widespread, and that evacuation routes were organized only with delay and were not always observed.

She continued: "The distinction between war crimes and crimes against humanity is obviously extremely important here, and why I would define aspects of this war as crimes against humanity is precisely because you can include the racial component in the definition not so much of intent, but in the understanding of the motivation of the Russian armed forces on the ground. So there are three things that one has to look for [in applying the definition crime against humanity]: one is the racial motivation, [the second is] is it systematic, and [the third] is it widespread. We need to rethink -- we can't just reduce everything to a civil war gone awry. [The term] war crimes is not enough to explain what took place" in Chechnya between 1999-2002.

In that context, Gilligan stressed what she termed the "dire need" for a comprehensive documentation program for both wars in Chechnya, something she has been working on for some time, and for talking more extensively to people about what actually happened to them, because there are "serious gaps" about our knowledge of what happened in certain areas at certain times, largely because human rights groups couldn't get to certain areas.

Gilligan went on to discuss her research methodology and the empirical material on which she based her research, which was conducted primarily in Moscow, but also in Vienna and Berlin where she interviewed Chechen refugees. She said she also drew on reports compiled by human rights groups and the UNHCR; personal interviews with senior political figures, especially from outside Russia, who had first hand experience of conditions in in Chechnya or Ingushetia; and materials relating to cases brought by Chechens against the Russian Federation at the European Court of Human Rights.

She admitted that the research was "challenging," and entailed using multiple sources to build up as extensive a picture as possible, but said she does not claim to provide a definitive picture, which would take "many years," if indeed it will ever be possible to do so.

Asked which of numerous "horrible episodes" she would qualify as war crimes, Gilligan listed the firing on a Red Cross convoy leaving Grozny in late October 1999; closing the main border-crossing between Chechnya and Ingushetia to prevent fleeing Chechen civilians from leaving Chechnya; and the bombing of Alkhan-kala on the western outskirts of Grozny in December 1999 and early February 2000 when that village was still full of civilians but being used by resistance fighters as an escape route after their retreat from Grozny. She added: "I would stress that the indiscriminate use of force in Grozny itself was essentially highly disproportionate," as was the use of incendiary weapons that can reach cellars and basements and burn people alive. The use of those weapons, she said, was in violation of specific protocols of the Geneva Convention.

Gilligan then discussed the infamous "zachistki" and sweep operations in which Russian troops would surround a village and search every house, ostensibly in a bid to apprehend resistance fighters, frequently engaging in pillaging and gratuitous violence and on occasion apprehending or even shooting dead those who offered resistance. The most notorious such operations were in Novye Aldi and Staropromyslovsky in 2000, 2001, and 2002. She commented that one has to be aware of the semantic implications of the emergence of a term like "zachistka," of which the root 'chistka' derives from the term for the purges of the CPSU in the 1920s and 1930s. "One needs to think about what this tells us about the militarization of Russian language at the time and what it says about a particular type of mindset that I would argue was actually being perpetrated by the Russian propaganda wing."

Gilligan also qualified as a war crime the setting up of filtration points on the outskirts of Chechen villages, and the widespread use of detention and torture. She said she has been "trying to understand the motivation behind this, specifically whether we understand the motivation as purely military." She suggested that, on the contrary, there were "many different motivations, some military, and some probably legitimate, some economic, others plain sadistic, and others I would strongly argue were racial if one looks at the testimony, at the type of language used against Chechens, both men and women, we're all familiar with type of graffiti found on walls of schools or filtration points and what that actually says about the larger agenda or the larger psychological motivating factors" that pushed some members of special forces "over the edge." She stressed that her aim in doing so is not simply connected to the legal aspect, but that she wants to comprehend the motivation for the atrocities committed during the war that began in 1999, and how and to what extent that motivation may have differed from that of Russian forces during the 1994-96 war.

Asked whether the Russian authorities, and specifically the Russian military, cooperated in any way in her research, Gilligan said no, and that she did not even try to secure their input. Again focusing on Russian motivation, she recalled "strange" public statements by some of the leading Russian generals, including Vladimir Shamanov who commanded the Western group of forces.

She noted that "most of generals who played a key role in second war were products of first war," which could explain Shamanov's veiled threat to the top brass that "if you don't let us finish the job we started in 1994," there could be a massive defection of Russia's generals. Whether or not this was just hyperbole, Gilligan added, it suggests there was "some tension and some desire within the Russian army to go back to finish what was left unfinished" at the time of the 1996 cease-fire.

Asked if she sees any way to bring Shamanov and other Russian generals such as Gennady Troshin to justice for crimes they committed, Gilligan was not optimistic. She explained that the European Court of Human Rights is trying to deal with individual complaints by Chechens and having a difficult time in terms of securing cooperation from Russian authorities, for example in obtaining documentation. She noted that Chechens are being paid 30,000 euros ($46,666) in compensation for a family member having been killed, and then have to return to the same insecure environment in Chechnya. She said she has talked extensively to ECHR staffers who are very much aware of the limitations on what the court can accomplish. A further major obstacle is the fact that the Russian Federation has not yet ratified the convention on the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is unlikely to do so soon.

Gilligan said the one thing one can do, and that she has been doing for past four years, is to launch a documentation project, build up a body of evidence, and talk to as many people as possible about certain events. This is imperative not just for moral reasons, but because one cannot anticipate whether and when and how that evidence could be used in future, given that international law and concepts of international governance are changing and evolving. Who would have ever thought, she asked rhetorically, that former Liberian President Charles Taylor would end up before the ICC?

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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