President George W. Bush welcomed Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the aide to Russia’s defense minister and former Ulyanovsk governor who commanded troops in Chechnya accused of committing atrocities, into the Oval Office on March 26. Shamanov visited the White House in his capacity as co-chairman of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. Bush posed for pictures with Shamanov and the American co-chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Robert Foglesong, president of Mississippi State University. Interfax reported on April 2 that Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, also participated in the meeting.
The Yezhednevny zhurnal website (Ej.ru) on March 29 quoted Shamanov as telling journalists after the meeting that he and the U.S. president had discussed the search for Soviet soldiers who were captured or missing in action in Afghanistan. “During the time of the commission’s work, we have managed to clarify the fate of more than 70 people who took part in the Afghan war, and the work continues,” Shamanov said. “The American side today confirmed that it is prepared, using the presence of coalition forces and American forces in Afghanistan, to help us in resolving this issue.” He said that thanks to coordination with the United States, out of the 384 Soviet troops who had disappeared in Afghanistan, the fate of only 286 remains to be determined.
The Washington Post wrote on March 29 that it was not clear whether Bush knew about Shamanov’s background going into the meeting, but that “at least some Russia experts in the government who were not consulted on the visit did.” According to the newspaper, Bush spoke with President Vladimir Putin by telephone on March 28. On March 29, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Bush “was not aware of the allegations made against” Shamanov and that “due to the information about the current Russian commission leadership, we are going to review how best to move forward with that important work, without future photo ops.” As the Washington Post reported on March 30, asked by a reporter whether Bush would have met with Shamanov had he known about the allegations, Perino responded: “Unlikely.”
As Human Right Watch (HRW) noted in a March 29 press release, Shamanov, as a former commander of Russian federal forces in Chechnya, is implicated in “grave human rights abuses,” including the killing of civilians in the villages of Alkhan-Yurt in 1999 and Katyr-Yurt in 2000, and the illegal detention and torture of detainees in 2000. “In December 1999, Russian troops under Shamanov’s command committed at least 14 killings which amounted to extrajudicial executions in Alkhan-Yurt in Chechnya,” the HRW press release stated. “Evidence collected by Human Rights Watch documents that Shamanov was aware that his troops were perpetrating abuses in Alkhan-Yurt but that he failed to take any steps to stop it. Human Rights Watch’s 1999 report on Alkhan-Yurt documented that on December 11, 1999 a group of residents from Alkhan-Yurt attempted to meet with Shamanov, who was in the vicinity of the village at the time, to raise their concerns about the continuing abuses in Alkhan-Yurt. However, Shamanov refused to listen to the villagers and, according to one of the women in the group, swore at them and threatened: ‘[G]et out of here or I will shoot you right now.’ Witnesses informed Human Rights Watch that the villagers pleaded with Shamanov to stop the killings but after about 10 minutes the commander forced them to leave.”
Human Rights Watch noted that in February 2005, the European Court of Human Rights, ruling in the case Isayeva vs. Russia, found Shamanov responsible for “a military operation which involved the ‘massive use of indiscriminate weapons’ and which led to the loss of civilian lives in the village of Katyr-Yurt in February 2000.” The New York-based group also said that in early 2000 it received several allegations of abuses on a military base in Tangi-Chu by troops under Shamanov’s command. “Multiple witnesses told us that detainees were being held in pits at this military base and were systematically tortured and ill-treated,” Human Rights Watch stated in its March 29 press release. “We interviewed several survivors of this place of detention, who recounted being beaten repeatedly and subjected to electric shock. The protracted period of time over which these abuses were taking place and the considerable numbers of allegations of abuse suggest that Shamanov either knew or should have known about them but failed to prevent these actions or punish the perpetrators.” (For further details of the accusations against Shamanov, see Andrei Smirnov’s article below.) Human Right Watch said that it had been in contact with the White House, which had “acknowledged that working with Shamanov had been an error that would be addressed.”
Interestingly, Kommersant on April 2 quoted “informed sources” in Washington as saying that the meeting between Bush and Shamanov had been prepared by White House staffers in conjunction with officials from Russia’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry. The newspaper quoted an American source “close to the White House” as saying that the U.S. State Department was not involved in the preparations. It also quoted sources in Washington as saying that the Kremlin also “had a hand” in organizing the meeting. However, a source in the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service said that the ministry had nothing to do with Shamanov’s trip to Washington. Kommersant quoted Kremlin administration sources as saying they had also been unaware of Shamanov’s plans to meet with Bush and found out about the meeting only after it had taken place. Foreign Minister officials contacted by Kommersant were unable to say who prepared Shamanov’s visit to the United States.
Whatever the case, the meeting was strongly condemned by human rights activists. The Washington Post on March 29 quoted Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch as saying: “This isn’t someone the U.S. president should be meeting with. This is someone the president should be calling for an investigation of. What message does it send to Putin? It sends the message that whatever happened in Chechnya we don’t care about.”
The Associated Press on March 29 quoted Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, as saying that the group has compiled records, interviews and other documentation of Shamanov’s service in Chechnya that leaves no doubt that he had to have known what his troops were doing. Denber told the AP that the POW/MIA commission Shamanov co-chairs has “a great mission” but that it “just seems that folks in the Defense Department and the administration just didn’t do their homework” and that the United States should never have accepted him as the commission’s co-chair. “When his name popped up involved [sic] in serious human rights abuses, they should have done some digging,” Denber told the news agency. “It should have rung some alarm bells.”
Novaya gazeta military affairs correspondent Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired major who had fought in the first Chechen war and was personally threatened by Shamanov, wrote in the bi-weekly’s April 2 edition that after Shamanov was named chairman of Russia’s Interagency Commission for Prisoners of War, Internees, and Missing in Action in 2005, he failed “to help Russian mothers in the search for their sons who had disappeared in the war in Chechnya.” Izmailov added: “On that account, I heard Shamanov’s statements…[that] the corresponding Chechen commission supposedly should deal with the missing. But it [the Chechen commission] is headed by the former head of the Ichkerian security service, Ibragim Khultygov, who, like his former ‘office,’ was involved in kidnapping soldiers and civilians.”
Izmailov concluded by saying he hoped Bush had agreed to meet with Shamanov by mistake. “First of all because General Shamanov, I think, should answer in court for multiple counts of war crimes,” Izmailov wrote. “Secondly, because, in contrast to the Americans, nobody is searching for our prisoners and abductees.”
A commentary on the Shamanov controversy posted on the separatist Kavkaz-Center website on March 30 and signed by Said Irbakhaev concluded: “Meanwhile, a completely natural question arises: ‘Did George Bush dirty himself by receiving a Russian war criminal and being photographed with his arm around him?’ After the war crimes that Bush and his army have committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem [he has] not, given that it is impossible for dirt to soil dirt.”
Shamanov, for his part, told Interfax on April 2 that his meeting with Bush had come as a surprise to himself. “The reception by the U.S. president came as a surprise to me as it was not included into the original program of the visit,” Shamanov told Interfax. “The meeting lasted 10-15 minutes. George Bush expressed his satisfaction about the work of the Russian-U.S. Commission on POW/MIAs set up 15 years ago, and said that he personally was interested in seeing that the joint work aimed at seeking Russian and U.S. servicemen missing in action in hotbeds of tension during the Cold War years, is continued.” Shamanov added: “Neither Chechnya nor the war in Iraq was brought up at the meeting.”
Commenting on the controversy surrounding the meeting, Shamanov said: “The fuss made in the USA and spread by some Russian media in connection with the U.S. president’s meeting me, a former commander of the Joint Group of Forces in the Chechen Republic, shows that some forces are restless about the fact that Russia has won against international terrorists in Chechnya, which is a universally acknowledged fact. Russia continues intensifying its efforts to stabilize the situation in the North Caucasus.”