On March 8, the online daily Gazeta.ru reported the extraordinary news that Akhmed Zakaev, a deputy prime minister in the Chechen separatist government and a special representative of Aslan Maskhadov, had met with the chief prosecutor of the Hague International Tribunal for the affairs of former Yugoslavia, Carla del Ponte, at her offices in The Netherlands. The discussion took place during a break in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, who is charged with having committed crimes against humanity. Del Ponte, Gazeta.ru noted, “can help Aslan Maskhadov to initiate a judicial trial against Vladimir Putin in connection with war crimes committed by the federal forces in Chechnya. Today in The Hague she spoke with Akhmed Zakaev for more than an hour and gave him his first consultation on that subject.” Zakaev’s meeting with del Ponte had been arranged by the well-known British actress Vanessa Redgrave, who is highly active in efforts to help bring an end to the war in Chechnya.
In comments made to Gazeta.ru, Zakaev noted that he was in regular contact with President Maskhadov and that the latter had approved his proposal to meet with del Ponte three weeks previously. The trial of Milosevic for war crimes, Zakaev stressed, “instills the hope that Russian generals who are responsible for genocide and war crimes in Chechnya will find themselves in the same place [on trial].” And he added: “Putin has a choice. Either he himself will bring his generals to account or he will end up in the same spot as Milosevic. After all, Milosevic also says that he did not know of the crimes committed by his military.” Zakaev adamantly declined to communicate any details of his conversation with del Ponte, but did remark: “I can only say that Carla del Ponte asked that we not lose hope, and said that a just retribution will be the lot of those guilty for what is being done in Chechnya.”
In a written statement issued on March 7, Zakaev underlined: “It is known that the jurisdiction of the Hague Tribunal does not apply to Russia.” However, he added, the meeting with del Ponte serves nevertheless to “instill horror into the Russian generals who are up to their elbows in the blood of Chechen women and children…. Today’s meeting with Madame Carla del Ponte is also a beginning in this process [against Russian war criminals]. We hope for the Russian society, for the support of those who themselves suffered from the explosions of the houses in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Buinaksk. Those who committed these crimes against Russian citizens are today located in Chechnya, killing, torturing and raping tens of thousands of innocent citizens. We will in every way possible contribute to bringing these killers to justice. I was present in the room of the Hague Court considering the case of the former President of Yugoslavia, Milosevic. This is an indication of the fact that, independently of their rank, criminals will be summoned” (Chechenpress.com, March 8).
In its commentary on the Zakaev-del Ponte meeting, Gazeta.ru observed: “In reality the representative of Maskhadov has only one address to which he can appeal against infringements of human rights in Chechnya. This is Belgium. In 1993, a law was adopted there which permits it to try the citizens of foreign countries for crimes against humanity…. It is not excluded that a suit will be made by the Chechens in the courts of precisely this country against the Russian authorities” (Gazeta.ru, March 8).
Responding angrily to this development, the chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Dmitry Rogozin, proposed “summoning Carla del Ponte for questioning at the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office” to ascertain on what grounds she had received Maskhadov’s envoy. “Having contacts like this,” Rogozin fulminated, “demonstrates Ms. del Ponte’s moral support for international terrorism” (RIA Novosti, March 7).
The meeting of Zakaev with del Ponte represented just one of several setbacks suffered by the Russian leadership over the past week with regard to Chechnya. Human Rights Watch issued a highly-detailed fifty-one-page report entitled, “Swept Under: Torture, Forced Disappearances, and Extra-judicial Killings during Sweep Operations in Chechnya” (available at: https://www.hrw.org). And the Nobel-prize winning organization Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on March 4 issued a report entitled “No End in Sight to the War in Chechnya” in which it concluded that at present “no international power is prepared to stop the Kremlin and protect Chechens’ lives or even their most fundamental human rights” (for the text, see www.reliefweb.int).
Finally, in the United States, on March 4 the U.S. Department of State issued its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: 2001,” which contains extremely critical remarks concerning Russia’s conduct of the war in Chechnya (see www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/eur/8331.htm). The Russian Foreign Ministry responded with considerable ire to this report, remarking: “There is an impression that the authors of the report just copied old cliches as if nothing has happened in Russia or the United States, as if there were no events of September 11…. Passages about Chechnya look especially odious against this background” (Interfax, March 7).
During the same week, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota introduced the text of a Senate Resolution on behalf of himself and Senator Sam Brownback in which the Russian government was urged “to seek a negotiated settlement… [and] to end human rights violations by Russian soldiers.” Wellstone cited the just-released Human Rights Watch report as evidence in support of his resolution (posted on Ichkeria.org, March 6).
To conclude, it appears that forging on with the war is likely to come at an increasing political cost for Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership.