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.