Britain’s Independent newspaper on May 7 published an open letter from more than 100 British political and cultural luminaries to Vladimir Putin, urging him to use his final year as Russian president “to act to end the war and to restore peace and justice in Chechnya.”
“Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of Chechens have been displaced and more than 100,000 killed – mostly civilians,” the letter read. “Disappearances, torture, rape, extra-judicial killings and the silencing of independent journalists and human rights defenders have been daily occurrences, both by Russian forces and the militia of the president there whom President Putin recently appointed, Ramzan Kadyrov. For the vast majority of the Chechen people, Kadyrov’s presidency is little more than a regime of fear and oppression, with no way out and no avenues to seek justice for the daily crimes against civilians.”
The letter noted that, in November 2006, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed grave concern over “reliable reports of unofficial places of detention in the North Caucasus and the allegations that those detained in such facilities face torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The open letter also mentioned that in March 2007, following a visit to Chechnya, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner on Human Rights deplored the continuing torture and lack of accountability (Chechnya Weekly, March 15). It also cited the January 2007 European Court of Human Rights ruling in favor of two brothers who had been held in secret detention and subjected to torture by Russian forces in 2000 – Adam and Arbi Chitaev. “Most of the secret detention facilities in Chechnya are now run by ‘Kadyrovtsy,’” the letters stated. “Civilians are regularly detained without charge or any official record and subjected to torture to obtain ‘confessions.’” The letter also noted that in January 2007, the Russian Supreme Court denied an appeal against the closure of the Nizhny Novgorod-based Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which publicized such abuses (Chechnya Weekly, January 25).
The letter concluded: “Despite overwhelming evidence from human rights organizations about continuing war crimes in Chechnya and the silencing of human rights defenders and independent journalists, the international community has so far turned a blind eye and remained silent. It is part of our intention to bring the horrific situation in Chechnya to wider public attention, and exhort President Putin to take whatever action he can to restore peace and the rule of law in Chechnya. Today, the very essence of our humanity is at stake in Chechnya.”
The letter’s signatories included Malcolm Rifkind, who served as Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister John Major; Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell; ex-Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy; Frank Judd, the Labor peer and former Rapporteur for Chechnya to the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE); the playwright Tom Stoppard; novelists Melvyn Bragg and Ian McEwan; film and television director Ken Loach; and André Glucksmann, the French philosopher and writer. According to the Independent, the letter was initiated by the Chechnya Peace Forum, whose director, Ivar Amundsen, was a friend of the murdered Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The Independent quoted Malcolm Rifkind as saying that while the West should recognize that the future of Chechnya is a “genuine internal problem” of Russia, “the methods, including the war itself and the denial of human rights, are appalling.” He said that while Putin has restored a “large measure” of self-respect and stability to Russia and presided over an economy benefiting from high oil and gas prices, “on the negative side, he has been moving towards a more authoritarian style of government.”
Rifkind told the Independent that Western governments have ignored human rights abuses in Chechnya. “Putin sought to use the U.S.-led war on terror as a reason why he expects the U.S. and the West to turn a blind eye to what he’s doing,” he said. “But it’s difficult to see the credibility in the claim that the Chechens are part of al-Qaeda. Even in the Cold War and in the days of the Soviet Union, it did not stop us [from] raising human rights issues with the Kremlin.”
Responding to the open letter, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov dismissed its claims about mass human rights violations in Chechnya, RIA Novosti reported on May 8. “Saying that there are currently mass violations of human rights in Chechnya is the same as saying that Big Ben stands not in London, but in the Chechen Republic’s mountainous Vedeno district,” Kadyrov told journalists in Grozny. According to the news agency, Kadyrov refused to comment on the letter’s contents, calling them “frivolous.”
Ismail Baikhanov, chairman of Chechnya’s election commission, said on May 8 the letter’s signatories should attend to violations of human rights in Iraq. “Any public attempt to protect civil rights is praiseworthy, but it is difficult to understand the logic of those who do not see what their soldiers are doing in Iraq, yet are trying to give advice to the leadership of another country,” Baikhanov told Interfax on May 8. “I, together with thousands of my co-citizens, do not understand why British public opinion and that of the European Union are not concerned by the fate of the Iraqi people or the fate of their soldiers, why they are silently watching the destruction of the state, of historic monuments. In Iraq, the blood of tens and hundreds of people is shed every day; women, old people and children are dying alongside soldiers of the coalition forces. In Chechnya, civil rights are being violated less that in any region of [Russia], and no more than in Western Europe.” Baikhanov added: “The calls to stop the war [in Chechnya] look ridiculous, because you cannot stop something that does not exist. They are too late.”
According to Interfax on May 8, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, said that the claims about the human rights situation in Chechnya made in the open letter to Putin were “baseless.” He urged British representatives to visit Chechnya to assess “peace and the rule of law” in the republic “with their own eyes” in order to avoid making “erroneous statements.”