16 September 2004 Edition

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Putin seizes more power: Chechnya human rights abuses mount

On Monday 13 September, President Vladimir Putin ordered a drastic change of the way Russia is run. The bloody conclusion to the siege in Beslan is the excuse used by Putin to strengthen central government control on the "autonomous" governments of the Russian Federation member states.

Putin announced his decision at a special cabinet meeting attended by regional governors, summoned after hundreds died in the school massacre in Beslan and they will affect not only the North Caucasus, but all member states of the Russian Federation.

The reforms will almost certainly strengthen Putin's own position and further limit the power of an already weakened opposition. The changes proposed by Putin include plans to elect deputies of the state's lower house of parliament, the Duma, solely on a party-list basis - currently half are elected from local constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis. Crucially, regional governors are to be nominated by the head of state rather than elected. A new federal commission will be created to study the troubled North Caucasus region which will be headed by the government chief of staff, Dimitry Kozak, one of Putin's closest allies. Security services are to increase their international co-operation and Putin also repeated that Russia had a right to take pre-emptive action to "destroy criminals in their hideouts and, if necessary, abroad".

Further measures under consideration include restoring the death penalty, tighter controls on foreigners and the creation of a colour-coded alert system.

Chechnya declared independence from Russia in November 1991 and it ran its own government until 1994, when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent in the troops to restore Moscow's authority. That initiated the first Chechen war, which ended in humiliating defeat for the Russian forces in 1996.

In 1997, rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was elected president and Russia recognised his government. But the issue of Chechnya's independence was not resolved. And it is then that Putin - at the time Russian Prime Minister- came into the equation. He sent troops back in on 1 October 1999, after Chechen militants crossed into the neighbouring Muslim region of Dagestan in an unsuccessful attempt to start an armed uprising. Russia claims the war was won, however, it seems that in reality it has moved underground.

During the war the brutality of the Russian troops towards civilians became the centre of the international debate. However, the international community did nothing to put an end to the human rights abuses of Russia against the Chechen people. Since the so-called end of the war, the abuses have continued, but the international community and international human rights bodies continued ignoring the suffering of Chechnya.

On 9 September Human Rights Watch pointed out how the British government is "sending a disastrous message by postponing the publication of its Human Rights Report". The Human Rights organisation wrote to Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw after the Foreign Office announced that the publication of the annual report would be "inappropriate" at this time in wake of the brutal hostage-taking and murder of children and adults in Beslan in the Russian province of North Ossetia.

"It's difficult to overstate the callous brutality of the hostage-takers at the school in Beslan," said Steve Crawshaw, Human Rights Watch's London director. "But heinous criminal acts are not a reason to put other human rights abuses to one side. On the contrary."

In its briefing to the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, in January 2004, Human Rights Watch urged the Commission to adopt a strong resolution on the situation in Chechnya, condemning ongoing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by both parties to the conflict; urging the Russian authorities to establish a genuine accountability process for these abuses.

The October 2003 presidential elections in Chechnya only served to open another chapter in a history of abuse and oppression. Human Rights Watch denounced how "Russian forces round up thousands of men in raids, loot homes, physically abuse villagers, and frequently commit extrajudicial executions. Those detained face beatings and other forms of torture, aimed at coercing confessions or information about Chechen forces. Federal forces routinely extort money from detainees' relatives as a condition for release. " In summary, the conflict in Chechnya continued to be characterized by widespread and systematic abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, which stand in stark contrast to claims from Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials that the situation in the Republic is "normalizing".

An increasing number of violations were blamed on the so-called Kadyrovtsy - an armed unit under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov, who became First Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya in May following the assassination of his father, President Akhmad Kadyrov.

On 9 May the President of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in a bomb explosion which took place while he was watching a Victory Day Parade in the Dinamo stadium in Grozny. The explosion killed six people, including the Chairman of the Chechen State Council, Hussein Isaiev, and an eight-year-old girl. At least 13 people needed hospital treatment as a result of injuries sustained in the blast. Presidential elections were scheduled to take place in the Chechen Republic in August.

The Kadyrovtsy were reportedly responsible for an increasing portion of human rights abuses in the region, and particularly "disappearances". Many Chechens interviewed by Amnesty International delegates in April and June said that they feared the Kadyrovtsy more than the federal troops.

"Disappearances" have become the hallmark of the conflict, and their frequency rose sharply in early 2003. According to statements by pro-Moscow Chechen officials collected by HRW in the first half of 2003 an average of two people went missing every day, many of them after being detained by Russian forces. According to the non-governmental Memorial Human Rights Centre which systematically monitors the situation in approximately one-third of Chechnya 's territory, in the first quarter of 2004, 78 people were abducted in Chechnya, 41 of whom subsequently "disappeared." At least 30 civilians died as a result of the armed conflict in the same period. The same group documented 294 "disappearances" between January and November 2003, including forty-seven people whose corpses were later discovered in unmarked graves or dumped by the roadside. The group estimates that the real number of "disappearances" was three or four times higher.

According to reports, at approximately 2am on 27 March eight military vehicles carrying a large group of masked men in camouflage uniforms entered the village of Duba-Yurt, approximately 25 kilometres from Serzhen-Yurt, and conducted a targeted raid on 19 houses. In total, 11 men aged between 28 and 44 were detained during the raid. Three men were released soon afterwards, but the remaining eight subsequently "disappeared".

On 9 April local residents found the bodies of the eight men in a ravine near Serzhen-Yurt in the Shali region of Chechnya. A ninth body later identified as a man originating from Duba-Yurt who had "disappeared" from his home in Grozny during the night of 1 to 2 April, was also found. The bodies reportedly bore gunshot wounds as well as marks of torture.

Persecution and intimidation of human rights defenders, activists and applicants to the European Court of Human Rights emerged as a new and trend. On 10 April 2004, 24-year-old Anzor Pokaev was allegedly abducted by federal troops who raided his home in Starye Atagi. The next morning villagers found his body, bearing multiple gunshot wounds, on a roadside near the village of Prigorodnye, about 10 kilometres from Starye Atagi. Sharfudin Sambiev, the father of Anzor Pokaev, and nine other people from Starye Atagi had filed an application in July 2003 with the European Court of Human Rights.

In one significant positive development, after three years of convoluted legal battles, Yuri Budanov, the only high-ranking officer tried for abuses related to the Chechnya conflict, was found guilty of murdering a young Chechen woman and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Budanov's conviction demonstrates that the Russian authorities are capable of bringing to justice those responsible for abuse provided the political will is there.

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