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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Citing his oversight of "an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings," the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov on December 20 within the framework of the so-called Magnitsky Act of 2012, which provides for sanctions against Russians implicated in serious human rights abuses.

Over the past two years, Russian rights organizations have registered a steady and alarming increase in the number of Chechens -- both men and women -- detained or abducted by security personnel, many of whom subsequently disappeared without trace. In January 2016, Memorial reported that at least 24 people had been apprehended during the previous three months, one of whom had since been found dead.

Two months ago, the news portal Caucasian Knot estimated that no fewer than 43 people had been reported missing by their families in Chechnya since the start of the year. A further seven abductions were reported in late November.

Human rights organizations believe the total figure is far higher, given that relatives of the disappeared might be afraid of incurring Kadyrov's wrath by reporting the abductions to the police and demanding a formal inquiry. Some individuals who have done so appear to have been pressured to withdraw their claims in front of TV cameras and apologize for impugning the security services.

That reluctance, and the obstructions and reprisals experienced by human rights organizations seeking to help victims and their relatives, render it impossible to calculate the precise dimensions of such abuses, Institute of Analysis and Conflict Prevention Director Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya told Caucasian Knot in late October.

Toxic Legacy

Enforced disappearances are part of the toxic legacy of Russia’s two military campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s. In a briefing paper published in March 2005, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated the number of such disappearances between late 1999 and early 2005 at between 3,000 and 5,000, and described the practice as follows:

An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is taken into custody by state agents, and the authorities subsequently deny that the person is in their custody or conceal the victim's whereabouts or fate in a way that places the victim beyond the protection of the law. Often victims of 'disappearances' also suffer torture or execution. Typically those responsible for 'disappearances' will try to avoid being called to account through cover-ups and by spreading misleading information.

HRW further argued that the scale of such disappearances in Chechnya at that time was so widespread or systematic as to meet the definition of a "crime against humanity" enshrined in the UN Declaration On The Protection Of Persons From Forced Disappearances.

Following the killing in 2005 of Chechen resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov, the incidence of enforced disappearances fell sharply. While HRW had documented the disappearance of 44 men between late December 2002 and late February 2003 -- an average of three per week -- Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev claimed in 2008 that not a single such incident had been reported during the first four months of the year. (Nukhazhiyev also cited a figure of 4,300 disappearances since the start of the first war in late 1994.)

Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was found dead in Ingushetia in July 2009, hours after being abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was found dead in Ingushetia in July 2009, hours after being abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

That is not to say, however, that the practice fell into abeyance: Natalya Estemirova, who represented the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial in Grozny, had been investigating the suspected involvement of Chechen police and security personnel in such disappearances in the days before she was murdered in July 2009.

The new upsurge in enforced disappearances, which Caucasian Knot described as "systematic," differs from that of the early 2000s in two key respects.

First, whereas the overwhelming majority of wartime and postwar disappearances were purportedly the work of the federal forces Moscow dispatched to Chechnya to combat "international terrorism," today the perpetrators are being blamed on the police and security units subordinate to Kadyrov.

And second, whereas the earlier wave was seemingly indiscriminate, over the past two years the security services appear to have been targeting primarily young men suspected of sympathizing with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) but also suspected drug dealers and men believed to be gay.

Memorial and the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta independently compiled lists of individuals apprehended in the wake of the attacks on police officers in Grozny almost a year ago. A Novaya Gazeta article listing 31 people apprehended, 14 of whom were reportedly summarily executed during the night of January 26-27, generated so much negative publicity that the Kremlin dispatched Russian human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova to Grozny in September to investigate. She failed to corroborate those reports.

Veteran human rights campaigner Svetlana Gannushkina recently told Caucasian Knot that only the Kremlin can prevail upon the Chechen authorities to put an end to enforced disappearances and similar human rights violations. Whether the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury on Kadyrov will result in such pressure remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili made the headlines last week after clashing with a well-known TV personality. (file photo)

A public altercation last week between Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and TV personality Gia Gachechiladze (aka Utsnobi) has given rise to widespread speculation that Kvirikashvili may step down, followed by multiple denials from coalition colleagues.

First Deputy Parliament Chairman Tamar Chugoshvili ruled out Kvirikashvili's exit on December 18 at the start of debates on the composition of the new cabinet that the prime minister proposed last month.

Both Chugoshvili and other senior Georgian Dream lawmakers have similarly denied any connection between Kvirikashvili's response to Gachechiladze's allegations of government corruption and the announcement on December 15 of the planned formation of two new factions within Georgian Dream's 115-member parliament majority.

Gachechiladze went public with his allegations at a specially convened press conference on December 12. He claimed that the government unfairly favored a company owned by outgoing Sports Minister Tariel Khechikashvili that was awarded a government contract to supply the Health Ministry with ambulances in a tender in which the Citroen subsidy in Georgia, which belongs to one of Gachechiladze's relatives by marriage, also participated. He said he appealed to Kvirikashvili, as an old friend, to intervene, whereupon the prime minister advised him to take legal action or lodge a formal complaint with the relevant government agency.

'Taking Advantage'

Gachechiladze was quoted on December 17 by Tabula.ge as suggesting unnamed government officials may have taken advantage of Kvirikashvili's trusting nature to engage in unlawful machinations behind his back. That news portal further divulged that since May 2015, companies owned by Khechikashvili have won tenders worth 23.5 million laris ($9.34 million) to supply the Georgian government with 502 vehicles.

Kvirikashvili publicly rejected the allegation of malpractice as untrue, saying that the tender was conducted strictly within the framework of the law. He added that if the allegation of foul play was nonetheless proven true, he was ready to resign, but that if it were not, he expects a formal apology from Gachechiladze, Interpressnews.ge reported.

As for the announcement that two new factions will be established within Georgian Dream's parliament majority, parliamentary chairman Irakli Kobakhidze rejected on December 16 as unfounded speculation that it reflected internal disagreements within the majority. Kobakhidze said discussions on establishing the new factions had begun prior to the end of the autumn parliament session, and that the objective was to improve internal management and coordination.

At present the majority comprises five small factions of five-to-six people, several of which (the Industrialists, the Conservatives) represent parties that aligned with Georgian Dream to contest the 2012 parliamentary election, plus an 86-member Georgian Dream faction headed by Mamuka Mdinaradze, who described that numerical disparity as "not the best foundation for management."

'Amendments To The Amendments'

One of the new factions will be headed by Bidzina Gegidze, who likewise denied any connection between their creation and the stand-off between Kvirikashvili and Gachechiladze.

A second prominent Georgian Dream faction member, lawyer Eka Beselia, argued that membership in small factions gives lawmakers a greater chance to participate in the work of the legislature. She further noted that Kvirikashvili's blessing for the establishment of the new factions is required in his capacity as Georgian Dream chairman.

Nonetheless, it became clear that there are differences of opinion within the Georgian Dream parliament majority during the vote on December 16 in the second reading on tweaking the constitutional amendments passed in October. The text of the "amendments to the amendments" had been changed after the first reading the previous day to broaden and enumerate the grounds on which public access to official documents may be restricted, Civil.ge reported.

First deputy parliament chairman Chugoshvili was one of several Georgian Dream lawmakers who criticized that new wording, declaring that "excess transparency has never caused a problem in this country; what created problems was excess secrecy." Those reservations did not, however, prevent the entire 115-majority voting for the bill.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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