Archive for April, 2012

An ugly truth

The jobs we do not see advertised in the papers

”If this sounds like a sick joke, that’s only because jobs like this aren’t usually advertised. But the jobs exist and there’s no shortage of candidates.”

This is the point made by Freedom from Torture, a UK-based rehabilitation organisation and IRCT member, through an original campaign being run in major British newspapers.

An unusual job offer, but a usual reality

The organisation came up with several fictional job ads, where, for example, “a government department is looking for a torturer to work in a well equipped prison”, or “a militia group is recruiting a senior human rights abuser.”

Among several other oddities, candidates applying for the “torturer job” are expected to be ready to inflict extreme pain and suffering.

This ad and other similar ones created by Freedom from Torture are surely taking job-seekers by surprise. However, the reality portrayed by the campaign may also be a surprise to the general public. The reality is, torture – and torturers – exist and is a common practice around the world. Lack of awareness about it impedes the work done by the torture rehabilitation organisations, members of the IRCT network, like Freedom from Torture.

As Freedom from Torture puts it, we need your help. You can contribute to efforts to alleviate the devastating long-lasting effects of torture and join us in speaking out against this inhumane practice and supporting the work of the IRCT and its members.

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25 de Abril Always

On the anniversary of the end of Portuguese dictatorship, the testimonies of torture survivors may remind us to learn from the past — that torture is never justified.

"25th of April ALWAYS!" Available through Creative Commons license

Today, 38 years ago, a military coup ended almost 50 years years of dictatorial regime in Portugal.  With it came the end of the Portuguese colonial war and the oldest European colonial empire. This was the carnation revolution in 1974.

During the dictatorship, particularly during the long-lasting regime of Salazar (1936-1972), Portugal saw an unprecedented curtailment of civil rights and liberties. Wide-reaching censorship succeeded to halt all initiatives against the government.

PIDE, the political police, became the regime’s most emblematic means of control. With its wide network of informants in schools, workplaces and recreational areas, PIDE corrupted Portuguese society from within and consolidated the power of Salazar, using, whenever necessary, physical and psychological torture to obtain confessions and accusations.

Fortunately, freedom came so quickly after the 1974 revolution, that most of the crimes committed by the regime have been told and retold with remarkable detail in numerous books, essays and news articles.

While it is not surprising that what I’ve just told resembles other revolutionary episodes of the same historical period, it is indeed quite striking that some of the torture testimonies of the period look a lot like recent international media stories on torture. We haven’t learned our lesson.

Already in 1932, for example, Salazar was using the “ticking time-bomb” [PDF] scenario to justify torture. At one occasion, he asked a journalist [PDF] whether “the lives of children and defenceless people are not worth, and justify, a dozen timely shakes on those sinister creatures…”.

Another, from 1974, shortly after the revolution, was told by the psychiatrist who evaluated many of the victims. He said that, “for the police, making the prisoners talk wasn’t the most important. What they were truly interested in was to destroy the prisoners personality and to create a climate of terror in the whole country through the stories told by the relatives of those subjected to torture”.

Today, while Portugal commemorates, we take the opportunity to honour the victims of torture and human rights defenders, many of whom were instrumental in bringing down the regime, thus changing the course of history. Their bravery should be honoured in learning from history; not repeating the justifications for and horrific practices of torture for those who seek governments that respect human rights.

For more information:
Some of the torture victims of Salazar’s regime were masterly portrayed in Susana de Sousa Dias’ prize-winning 2009 documentary film “48”. We recommend watching it [PDF]. Here is a clip:

Fábio works at the IRCT as a Communications Officer and Editorial Assistant for TORTURE Journal.

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The wrong track

Instead of flagging human rights abuses in Bahrain, F1 is choosing to ignore the grim reality

At left, protesters in Bahrain are calling for democratic reform and an end to human rights violations, photo by Al Jazeera English. At right, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone denies there are any 'problems' in the country, photo by Silverstone Circuits Limited. Both obtained through Flickr via Creative Commons license.

“On the track, Bahrain is going to be all about tyre wear”, it states on the Formula 1 website, reporting on their big race event in Bahrain, which begins tomorrow 20 April.

Off the track, however, is another story. Human rights violations, torture, indefinite detentions, judicial harassment, and a uniformly violent crackdown on democratic protesters throughout the last year. Demonstrations early last spring and the brutal state response caused F1 to cancel last year’s race. This year, however, they say the race will continue, despite a wave of outcry from human rights defenders.

The demonstrators are aptly using the Formula 1 grand prix to highlight these crimes committed by the overly image-conscious Bahraini regime and royal family. For example, last year they hired a U.S.-based public relations firm for $40,000 a month, plus expenses to quell their increasingly tainted international reputation. Just take a look at Twitter, where a huge conglomerate of human rights defenders and reform activists have taken advantage of the well-connected island nation to spread information, videos, pictures and news stories to highlight these human rights atrocities to the world. Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja, human rights activists and daughters of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, are among most followed Bahrainis on Twitter. In more recent months, the #Bahrain feeds have become more muddled in a social media battle as pro-regime and royal family supporters have stormed in, attempting to overwhelm the opposition with their own technology and tools.

And then there’s Formula 1, the singular event that unequivocally puts Bahrain on the map, and furthermore has previously showcased the capital Manama and the island nation as a “developed” “Western” ally in the Middle East (don’t forget, Bahrain has received both military, financial and symbolic support from the U.S.which has a key naval base on the island - and European nations in the past). F1 two years ago brought in more than 100,000 visitors and an estimated half-billion dollars in revenue. Pushing the event forth and bringing back Formula 1, is simply a tactic for the Bahraini government to rebrand itself on the world stage, pretend that their so-called reforms have worked, and sweep away the human rights violations, crimes of torture, and the ongoing protests for a true democracy underneath the screeching rubber tyres.

And the Formula 1 organisation, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, and the teams participating in the Bahrain grand prix have much to answer for; their decision to move forth and participate in this shameful event not only aids the regime’s purpose for image-making, but thus allows these crimes to continue unabated and without redress for the victims. Instead, these are there excuses:

Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive, Formula One
“I’m happy our position is quite clear. We don’t get involved in politics in a country. There’s nothing happening. I know people here, it’s all very peaceful.”

Ross Brawn, principal, Mercedes team
“We have to take the advice of people who have all the information. We have reassurances from the FIA that we can have a safe race.”

Sebastian Vettel, driver, Red Bull
“I think it is safe enough to go and we should go there and race and not worry about something that is not our own business.”

Jenson Button, driver, McLaren
“I look to the governing body to decide whether we go to Bahrain or not. I don’t know all the facts; hopefully they can make the right call.”

There are simply no neutral parties when it comes to human rights violations and torture. By making these claims – Bahrain is peaceful, drivers should not get involved in political affairs, that nothing is happening – is, at best, highly naïve and is, more likely, that those in a position to take a stand instead are burying their heads in the sand. F1 leaders, teams and drivers, in a highly visible position in this debate, should rather use that platform to call out the Bahraini government for their crimes. International sporting events and their participants have a unique position to push forth change, and those in the Bahrain F1 event should use it. We can hope that, for example, the BBC, which is “contractually obligated” to broadcast the event, will not sideline the protests and demonstrations. Instead, we hope they use the F1 broadcast to show the awful truths Bahrain is keeping away from the track.

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Torture in black and white: books on torture

Recently, on our organisation’s website, we wrote about a new book from former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak. The book, titled Torture: the banality of the unfathomable (in German: Folter: Die Alltäglichkeit des Unfassbaren) chronicles Professor Nowak’s experiences in documenting torture around the world, both during his professional career and during his mandate for the UN, where he traveled to almost 20 countries in all regions of the world.

However, Nowak’s book is only in his native German; but it started us thinking about other books – both fiction and non-fiction – that address torture and its impact on the victims and their families. Similarly to our previous list on the top films, we present here our top books on torture. If there are any we have left off or neglected, please remind us in the comments.

To start, it’s fitting to point to the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Mendez, and his recent book Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights. Mendez, who is himself a torture victim from the Argentine Dirty War, describes it as; “a way to illustrate and enable people to understand how far we’ve come to make the international human rights groups diverse in their composition”. The book provides a very moving and in-depth telling of his own experiences as a torture victim in Latin America in the late 70s, and how since, he has dedicated his life to furthering the cause of human rights.

 

 

 

 

 

Many staff here at the IRCT recommended Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Mayer examines the legal justification and excuses for the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ AKA torture, on terrorism suspects by the CIA. As a long-time foreign correspondent, war reporter, and now at the New Yorker, Mayer’s journalistic background and method in writing creates a well-researched and gripping account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Juan Mendez actually recommended this historically-derived drama in an interview when his own book was published. Set in Chile, Dorfman chronicles a country seeking justice and peace after the violent Pinochet regime. Set several years after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, Death and the Maiden follows the perspective of a women who hears the voice of the man who raped and tortured her several years prior – a man who is now a guest in her kitchen. Beautifully written, Dorfman’s play points to the long-term impact of torture.

 

 

 

 

 

While this may come as a surprise for some, George Orwell’s classic novel about a totalitarian state depicts well one of the tools of repression, fear, and control that occurs in such regimes. Although better known for its creation of terms such as ‘Orwellian’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘though police’,  the final chapters focus on the torture and interrogation of  protagonist Winston Smith. Smith seeks love and individuality in this dystopian novel, only to find it snuffed out by apparatuses of the state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third book in our list written by a current or former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law is a seminal work on torture, human rights, and international law by Sir Nigel Rodley. Places of detention, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, police lock-ups, or psychiatric centres, are the most common space in which one would find torture in any given country. As such, Rodley’s book and descriptive analysis is a fundamental read for those interested in how international human rights law came to be applied to a wider manner of human rights concerns, such as the inhumane or ill-treatment of detainees.

 

 

 

 

 

Horacio Verbitsky, author of Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior, is among the most well-known investigative journalist and human rights advocate in his native Argentina. After the ‘Dirty War’, the decades of human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture in Argentina, the former perpetrators of these crimes – largely the military branches under the regime – kept silent. Impunity prevailed. Verbitsky’s book is a first-hand account of the confessions of retired navy officer Adolfo Scilingo, the first man to break the military’s pact of silence and come forth with the crimes.

 

 

 

 

 

Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?: A Human Rights Perspective is a series of essays and analysis from some of the top human rights thinkers, experts, and anti-torture activists in the world on a range of timely, current issues in human rights and the discourse around torture, particularly in the era of the so-called ‘war on terror’. For example, Minky Worden, Media Director of Human Rights Watch, conducts a survey of countries that torture. Eitan Felner, formerly of the Center for Economic and Social Rights and B’Tselem, writes on the Israeli experience. Twelve essays comprise the book.

 

 

 

 
There were a lot of memos that comprise the almost bureaucratic and systematic manner in which the U.S. government most recently approved the use of torture in interrogation. Among the most famous of these memos was a series of notes from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. After 18 pages of interrogation techniques that defied well-established law on torture, Rumsfeld approved, thus leading to such atrocities as Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay Prison and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are there any we have missed? Please let us know in the comments.

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From our members: Rehabilitation in action

Editor’s Note: This post is a submission from IRCT member Florida Center for Survivor’s of Torture, one of many programmes within Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services (GCJFS) in the United States. It has also been cross-posted from their website, which one may find here.

 

Christy* is a refugee from Burma and, along with her family, a client of the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture (FCST). She and her family lived in a refugee camp for 12 years. Prior to living in the refugee camp, they endured many challenges.

In their village, many of their neighbours were forced to serve as porters for the military or pay the military a fine. As porters they would have to march with the military for months and were frequently caught in the midst of battle with rebels. Some of Christy’s family died while serving as porter and others were badly wounded. Christy’s father was forced to serve as a watchman for the army. His role was to alert the military if rebels were approaching; he was later accused of supporting the rebel troops and was beaten and tortured. He eventually fled and hid in the Burmese jungle near the border of Thailand. Three years later, the family was then able to reunite in Thailand.

When they arrived in the United States of America, each member of Christy’s family had a hard time adjusting. Everything was very different than in the refugee camp. Christy struggled in school. She could not graduate because of the language barrier and was referred to a GED program.

Christy and her family were referred to FCST six months after they were resettled. Zakira Causevic was assigned to be their Program Specialist. Zakira assisted the family with education, employment, transportation, interpretation and the process of applying for permanent residency.

From the beginning of their interactions with the FCST, Zakira noticed that Christy struggled with self confidence. As a client-centered, intensive case management program, one of the first interactions Christy had with Zakira was centred on creating Christy’s Master Service Plan – a list of goals she would like to achieve. During their discussions, Christy would give up on herself saying that she “could not do it”. Zakira explained that she was too shy. Together they set several goals: obtain a driver’s license, enroll in the GED class and find a job. Although Christy wanted to achieve these goals she continued to state, “I cannot do that”.

A volunteer was recruited to the family to help them to learn English. The volunteer also noticed that Christy did not have confidence and tried to be very supportive in helping her build her self esteem. With the help of FCST, Christy made steps to work towards her goals. Each time Zakira saw Christy, she encouraged her and celebrated her successes. Finally, to use Zakira’s words, “Christy made it!”

Now Christy has her driver’s license, found a job and is going to school to get her GED. Her new goal is to go to college and become a nurse. Clearly, Christy has gained confidence and self–esteem, and given all of the progress she’s made thus far, Zakira and the FCST staff can envision her achieving her new goals.

*Not her real name

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The most interesting blog post you’ll ever read on ‘capacity development’

Andrés Bastidas Beltrán of Colombian member centre Corporación AVRE (Support to Victims of Sociopolitical Violence for Emotional Recovery) gave a presentation during the 2011 seminar of the Latin American region in Lima, Peru in September. Hosted by Peruvian member Centre of Psychosocial Attention (CAPS), last year’s regional seminar brought together professionals from 15 torture rehabilitation centres in the region to discuss issues such as public policy on torture documentation and different treatment methods.

As I started working at NGOs, a phrase kept popping up that, honestly, I didn’t quite understand at the time.

“Capacity development” or “building capacity” was among the new NGO-ese I had yet to become acquainted with. In this field – as any other – there is a whole new language to learn. This included “concept note”, “actors”, “stakeholders”, “facilitators”, “good governance”, among many others. However, as I started working at the IRCT, I heard this particular phrase a lot, and most often in context with our Non-State Actors project.

“Non-state actors” is also not a very helpful term, and it doesn’t get any better with the longer version: developing the capacity of IRCT member centres to deliver holistic torture rehabilitation services through south-south and south-north peer supervision and support.

But this is my attempt to explain this project, and why building capacity is so vital for the future of the global anti-torture movement.

We are a membership organisation comprised of more than 140 rehabilitation centres all over the world. We have members in Sudan and Peru, Australia and Nepal, Egypt and, most recently, Namibia – more than 70 countries. And as one might surmise, not all the centres have the same resources or expertise.

EATIP in Argentina has a lot of experience in supporting torture victims – medically, psychologically, and financially – through justice proceedings. They have done so with several victims who are providing witness testimony in cases from the former dictatorial regime. African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims in Uganda has been at the forefront at developing livelihood programmes – training women how to sew or weave, for example – as part of their rehabilitative care for female victims of sexual violence and torture. Other centres are stars at fundraising and understanding how to apply for grants from the European Union or philanthropic foundations.

These are all skills that are not evenly distributed across the 140 centres. Building capacity is simply trying to improve all the rehabilitation centres by having the centres teach each other. Our project is to facilitate that through exchanges, seminars and organising training. A doctor in Sri Lanka travels to an Indian centre to learn a new psycho-social treatment method. A partner in Cameroon meets with other Sub-Saharan African treatment centres to discuss fundraising options – to work together rather than in competition. A forensic specialist from Colombia might visit a centre in Mexico to explain the most up-to-date information on documenting torture in the proper fashion (according to the Istanbul Protocol), so that the information can be used to prosecute the perpetrators or apply for asylum cases.

Capacity development – despite the esoteric wording – is simply making organisations better through training, sharing information and expertise, and cooperating, so that all members of the IRCT benefit from the incredible wealth of knowledge in each of the rehabilitation centres that comprise that membership. Improving the centres means improving their ability to treat victims of torture, aid survivors in accessing justice, and prevent torture from happening in the first place.

Tessa works in the Communications Team at the IRCT. The Non-State Actors project (NSA) is funded by the European Commission.

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Investigating human rights violations in Chechnya together

Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in an ongoing series from Russian member centre Committee Against Torture on their use of a Joint Mobile Group to investigation human rights violations, such as torture. See the first , second and third post.

After the murder of Natalya Estemirova, Memorial Human Rights Centre stopped working in Chechnya; many of its employees who used to work in Grozny had to temporarily leave the country. Soon after that, on 4 August 2009, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, chairperson of the Let’s Save the Generation charity and her husband, were abducted and killed in Grozny.

The CAT realised that it should either investigate the crimes allegedly perpetrated by Kadyrov’s agents, or stop all activities in Chechnya, as efficient operation of a human rights NGO was not possible without constant threat to the lives of its members. In the face of the alternative – either admit its impotence or risk the lives of the Chechen representation staff – it found another option: creation of a Joint Mobile Group consisting of employees permanently residing in other Russian regions. The JMG started working in Grozny on November 30, 2009.

JMG tasks in Chechnya

Taking into account the widespread and large scale nature of human rights violations in Chechnya and almost total impunity for them, it would be naive to assume that the JMG could conduct a public investigation of all reported cases of violations, murders and enforced disappearances. The task was much more unpretentious and narrow – to choose several cases of abductions, perform a detailed in-depth analysis of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of investigations carried out by the Investigative Committee and find out why none of these such cases were fully investigated. The CAT decided that these should be fresh 2009 cases with no suspects among Russian servicemen or law enforcers from other regions temporarily serving in Chechnya; only crimes allegedly committed by local policemen in the period when Ramzan Kadyrov was already Chechnya’s president.

On the basis of these criteria, the JMG selected nine cases and its lawyers officially joined the proceedings as victims’ representatives. Investigative authorities had instigated criminal proceedings under Article 126 of the Russian Criminal Code (abduction of a person) under all those crime reports. In one case, we have established that state agents were not involved in the abduction; in another case, victims’ relatives have refused to further cooperate with human rights defenders due to intimidation. Thus, the JMG is now dealing with seven public investigation cases.

Peculiarities of the method and security measures

The major peculiar features of JMG activities in Chechnya are unusual mission lengths and increased security measures.

The Joint Mobile Group encompasses three people who work in the Republic on a rotating basis for one month. Each team is headed by a leader. Each leader has power-of-attorney to represent victims’ interests in criminal proceedings. Thus, they have a right to participate in investigative activities, file petitions and otherwise monitor the official investigation progress.

The JMG rents a four-room flat in Grozny that serves both as an office and accommodation. The JMG has a car; there is at least one person with a driving license in each team.

Security rules do not allow JMG members to leave the flat and move around the Republic alone. The team leader notifies the supervisor located in Nizhny Novgorod about the agenda and actual movements of the JMG on a daily basis. There is a time frame (controlled intervals) when the JMG leader has to contact the supervisor. The JMG headquarters and car are equipped with hidden video and audio recording devices.

The JMG has once experienced unlawful detention (in fact, abduction) of all its members by police agents suspected of grave human rights violations. Thanks to strict compliance with the security rules, prompt response of human rights defenders in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, and quickly drawing public attention to the violation, the abducted JMG members escaped tragic consequences.

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“They become shells of their former selves”: Long-term solitary confinement is torture

Walking across the cell would probably take no more than three paces. There is no light. There are no other people. And a prisoner will be there for 23 of 24 hours a day.

A BBC article today recalls the solitary confinement experience of one member of the infamous Angola 3 – three prisoners of one of America’s most brutal prisons who have long claimed their innocence and been the subject of a growing call to address justice issues in the U.S. The three men have spent a combined 100 years in solitary confinement, in cells no larger than three by two meters.

And that is not uncommon in the country with the most people in prison (the U.S. has, by far, the highest incarceration rates in the world – twice as many Americans are imprisoned as in China, where there are five times as many people). Although determining figures are hard to come by, some estimate there are anywhere between 25,000 to 80,000 people locked up in long-term solitary confinement.

“Lock yourself in your bathroom for 10 years, then come out and tell me that that’s not torture”, said one former inmate.

And the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, agrees. Just last year in his first report as the special investigator, Professor Mendez reported that, “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique”. Any terms of confinement where an individual is alone for more than 22 hours per day, for a total of more than 15 days, may constitute torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.

Sarah Shourd would agree. The American woman became famous a few years ago when she, her fiancé, and their friend were apprehended by Iranian security forces during a hiking trip on the border with Kurdistan. She spent 9,495 hours in solitary confinement. She recently wrote about this experience:

After two months with next to no human contact, my mind began to slip. Some days, I heard phantom footsteps coming down the hall. I spent large portions of my days crouched down on all fours by a small slit in the door, listening. In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. More than once, I beat at the walls until my knuckles bled and cried myself into a state of exhaustion. At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realized the screams were my own.

As we find ourselves often having to reiterate, no person shall be subject to torture, and, as Professor Mendez has stated, that includes long-term solitary confinement.

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A state of impunity: a brief history of human rights violations in Chechnya

Editor’s note: This is the third post in an ongoing series from Russian member centre Committee Against Torture on their use of a Joint Mobile Group to investigation human rights violations, such as torture. See the first and second post.

 

The armed conflict in Chechnya has a long history. In 1859, following long and murderous wars, Chechnya, located in the south-east of the North Caucasus, joined the Russian Empire. After the October Revolution of 1917, Chechnya became part of the Mountain (Gorskaya) Republic, which announced independence. In 1921 the Mountain (Gorskaya) Republic recognized the Soviet Union and joined it, subject to broad autonomy. Violations of the autonomy terms and conditions by the Soviet government provoked a series of armed insurrections and the birth of a permanent guerilla movement in Chechnya. In 1944, upon Stalin’s order, all Chechens and kindred Ingush were relocated to Kazakhstan; many were killed at that time. After Stalin’s death the Chechen-Ingush autonomy was restored.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya unilaterally declared independence and Russia de facto lost sovereignty over its territory. In December 1994 the Russian Government attempted to restore its sovereignty over Chechnya by means of violence. That gave rise to an armed conflict that lasted until August 1996 and terminated in Russian army’s defeat, withdrawal of troops from Chechnya and signature of a peace agreement. Yet, Chechnya’s legal status was still unclear, and in August 1999, the hostilities between Russia and Chechnya resumed. By summer 2000 the Russian army had full control over the majority of the Chechen territory and created its regulatory bodies there. However, the guerrilla movement continued with varying intensity, and at the present moment, an armed underground is active.

These turbulent events were accompanied by massive and grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws, committed by both parties to the conflict, including shelling of civilians,, “punitive” operations, terror acts, murder, torture, unlawful deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, rape, the use of civilians as human shields, hostage-taking, collective punishment, plunder of civilian property, etc. Representatives of the Russian side of the conflict have been committing crimes, in fact, in an atmosphere of total impunity.

The Council of Europe took up this issue in 2003, passing a resolution that read: “To ensure that those responsible for abuses are brought to justice, the Assembly … considers that, if the efforts to bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses are not intensified, and the climate of impunity in the Chechen Republic prevails, the international community should consider setting up an ad hoc tribunal to try war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Chechen Republic”.

In 2007 the Russian government installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president, acting with the support of newly created armed units loyal to him (colloquially called “Kadyrovtsy”).

A 2010 resolution by the Council of Europe describes: “In the Chechen Republic, the current authorities continue to nurture a climate of pervading fear …recurrent disappearances of opponents of the Government and champions of human rights still remain widely unpunished and are not elucidated with due diligence, reprisals are taken against the families of persons suspected of belonging to illegal armed factions (setting fire to their dwellings; the close relatives of the suspect or suspects are abducted or receive dire threats), there reigns a climate of intimidation of the media and civil society, and the judicial organs plainly do nothing about the misdeeds of the security forces.”

Thus, for that last 15 years, Chechnya has been a zone of large scale and systematic human rights violations. Prominent national and international human rights NGOs have documented the circumstances of murder and enforced disappearance of at least 4,000 civilians committed by the Russian side of the conflict; the real number is much higher, of course. At the present moment, more that 150 rulings from the European Court for Human Rights have shown that the Russian government is both reluctant to effectively investigate such crimes and is incapable of doing so.

Consequently, the scale and severity of human rights violations committed in Chechnya are unparalleled in modern Russian history.

Amid the violence, human rights NGOs try to find justice for the victims

In the mid 90s, many domestic and international human rights and humanitarian organisations turned their eyes to Chechnya. Following resumption of hostilities in 1999, representatives of such organisations as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Memorial Human Rights Centre (in 2000, it opened a branch office in Grozny that is still active), International Helsinki Federation and its member organizations, Russian-Chechen Friendship Society,. are permanently or occasionally present in Chechnya. At the beginning of the current century, several local human rights NGOs were created in the Republic.

In 2003 the Committee Against Torture, which used to work in Chechnya from time to time, opened a permanent representative office in Grozny. Its staff consists of local lawyers headed by defense lawyer Supyan Baskhanov. The organisation investigates allegations of torture, murders and enforced disappearances committed by state agents against civilians.

Like other NGOs in the region, the Committee Against Torture has faced total sabotage of their investigations by prosecutorial bodies, especially regarding systematic crimes perpetrated as part of the overall warfare strategy.

In 2004 federal servicemen gradually handed the carte blanche for unlawful violence over to representatives of the pro-Moscow military units made up of ethnic Chechens. By 2008 those military units were incorporated into the local security agencies and subsequently came under effective control of Ramzan Kadyrov who dexterously eliminated all rivals from the pro-Russian camp. Unlike federal servicemen, “kadyrovtsy” (Kadyrov’s agents) are perfectly aware of local customs and close connections between relatives, therefore, they started systematically using the mechanisms of collective punishment and collective responsibility. They resorted to the arson of homes, unlawful detention, torture and enforced disappearances of alleged militants’ relatives and those opposing Kadyrov’s policy. Yet, human rights NGOs received fewer complaints of violations – Chechen residents became increasingly fearful and did not perceive human rights defenders as a force capable of effectively protecting them and their near and dear from state terror. Of the few applications received, they did report crimes committed by local security agents.

For local lawyers working in CAT, public investigation into such applications entailed serious risks, since in the majority of cases, the suspects were law enforcement agents subordinate to Ramzan Kadyrov’s supporters. Therefore, CAT leaders decided that its Chechen representation should not work with such crime reports.

However, that decision did not prevent a tragedy in the human rights community. Victims’ relatives now brought their applications to the Grozny office of Memorial Human Rights Centre. Natalya Estemirova, one of the oldest Chechen Memorial activists, began to investigate them. Natalya did not have the legal expertise, experience and resources required for such work, however, she possessed sufficient courage to conduct non-governmental investigations and even managed to trace abductors in one case. On July 15, 2009 Estemirova was kidnapped upon leaving her home, taken to Ingushetia and shot. Her murder is still unsolved.

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