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NGO's Legal Woes Threaten Pursuit Of Justice For Chechens

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay compensation to Fatima Bazorkina over the disappearance of her son in Chechnya.
The European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay compensation to Fatima Bazorkina over the disappearance of her son in Chechnya.
Twelve years have passed since Fatima Bazorkina's son disappeared, in a case that has become a symbol of the lawlessness and brutality plaguing Chechnya.

Bazorkina saw her son alive for the last time in footage aired on Russian television in February 2000. In the video, a Russian officer was shown ordering the execution of her son, detained in Chechnya with a group of presumed rebel fighters.

After a long and fruitless search for her child, Bazorkina eventually sued Russian authorities for failing to adequately investigate his disappearance -- and won.

The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, awarded her more than 47,000 euros ($63,000) in its first-ever disappearance case from Chechnya.

Bazorkina says her court victory has not eased her grief. But the support she received from the Russian Justice Initiative, a Dutch nongovernmental group that helped take her case to Strasbourg, brought her much-needed solace during her agonizing search.

"They helped, they searched together with me, they inquired, they called all kinds of organizations," she told RFE/RL by telephone from her home in Ingushetia. "They really worked very hard, not only on my behalf but also on behalf of other women who were looking for their sons, their fathers, their daughters.

"They supported me psychologically; they empathized with each human tragedy. They are not indifferent to our misfortunes, and we are grateful to them for it."

But the Russian Justice Initiative appears to have run afoul of Russian authorities, meaning people like Bazorkina could lose a crucial ally.

A year ago, the Justice Ministry struck it off its registry of approved nongovernmental organizations on a technicality. The ministry claims the group failed to submit all necessary documents on time. After numerous attempts to reregister were rejected, the group decided to take the matter to a Moscow court.

A decision is expected on April 11.

'A Thorn In Their Side'

Vanessa Kogan, executive director of the Russian Justice Initiative, has no doubt her group's legal woes are retaliation for its activities.

"It's important to understand that the law, which was passed into law in 2006 and regulates the activity of NGOs, is designed to take advantage of the kind of mistake we made," she said. "What we are very concerned about is that the ministry has, we think, quite arbitrarily denied us the right to reregister. We think that this denial may, in fact, be connected to the ministry's lack of satisfaction with our work, that we are a thorn in their side."

As Russians grow increasingly frustrated at rampant red tape and corrupt judges, the European Court of Human Rights has emerged as a powerful check on Moscow.

Some 20 percent of all complaints filed with the court come from Russia, many from Chechnya and neighboring republics.

The Russian Justice Initiative is a driving force behind the bulk of these cases; the group has helped more than 100 plaintiffs win cases against the Russian government for atrocities committed by federal troops in the North Caucasus and has forced Russia to pay some 10 million euros in damages to civilians.

"They have been working very consistently, and some of their lawyers have been with them right from the beginning," says Bill Bowring, a professor of international human rights law at the University of London's Birkbeck College, who also helps Russians file complaints in Strasbourg. "They work through people on the ground in Chechnya and other parts of Russia. Over the years, they have been extremely successful. They have taken a lot of very important cases."

Compensation But No Justice

Russian authorities have not concealed their irritation at the European Court of Human Rights.

Officials have criticized its rulings as political. The State Duma dragged its feet for four years before ratifying a key reform to speed up the court's work in 2010. And while Russia has never failed to pay compensation to successful plaintiffs, it has largely ignored the court's broader demands to bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent similar crimes from happening again.

In Bazorkina's case, the officer seen ordering her son's killing, Colonel General Aleksander Baranov, has since been awarded a Hero of Russia medal and was in charge of all Russian troops in the North Caucasus until 2008.

Back in her small Moscow office, Kogan says the Russian government's hostility means there is virtually no hope of overturning the refusals to reregister her organization.

To continue representing their clients, the group has had to set up a new legal entity under a different name. But with most cases initiated before the Russian Justice Initiative was struck off the ministry's registry, the group is now bogged down in bureaucratic hurdles.

The pending verdict by the Moscow court will provide an indication of how freely Kogan and her team can continue helping Russian citizens pursue justice.

Whatever the outcome, however, the administrative standoff has once more illustrated the Kremlin's unwillingness to own up to the atrocities committed under its watch in the North Caucasus.

"It once again shows that we have no rights," says Bazorkina. "We cannot even prove that we are right. If we are guilty, then let them prove our guilt. Instead of shutting down this organization, authorities should encourage its work, establish the truth and dispel the lies."