Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Visits North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 16

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg visited the North Caucasus the past week to assess the situation first hand. Itar-Tass on April 23 quoted Hammarberg as telling journalists following a visit to Chechnya’s mountainous Shatoi district that that Chechnya’s reconstruction “is real and not for show,” adding that he had often read in the mass media that the Shatoi district had been badly hit during military operations in Chechnya and that thousands of inhabitants had been forced to abandon their homes. Itar-Tass quoted the acting head of the Shatoi district administration, Ruslan Shovkhalov, as telling Hammarberg that thanks to the republic’s program for the development of mountain regions, the district is being regenerated completely. The news agency also quoted district residents as expressing “their gratitude to (Chechen President) Ramzan Kadyrov for the special attention to the population’s needs, especially in the restoration of the district hospital and the foundation of a rehabilitation center for children.”

According to Itar-Tass, Hammarberg also met with the Shatoi district’s police chief, Major Magomed Shakhtamirov, and asked him about the problem of abductions in the district. Shakhtamirov told Hammarberg that seven instances of kidnapping had been reported in the district since 2000, the most high-profile being the abduction of the two brothers of the well-known Chechen banker, Abubakar Arsamakov. It is worth noting that Sulim Yamadaev’s Vostok battalion was implicated in the disappearance of the Arsamakov brothers (Chechnya Weekly, April 17). Shakhtamirov said that 328 crimes had been reported in the district in the past year. “That is substantially less than in previous years,” Shakhtamirov told Hammarberg, adding that criminal proceedings had been initiated in 57 of those cases, 48 of which had been solved. “The rest of the crimes were related to illegal armed groups,” Shakhtamirov said.

Russian news agencies on April 23 quoted Hammarberg as saying that missing people and the identification of bodies remain the two biggest human rights problems in Chechnya. “There is a need to create a database that would unite the information from families with the results of exhumations, as well as genetic dates about the relatives of those missing,” Hammarberg said.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, for his part, said that much still has to be done but that the republic needs help from the Russian president. “The president needs to assist in the creation of a commission on identifying bodies and help us in the search for those still missing,” said Kadyrov. “We’ve done all we can here in Chechnya, now is the time for the federal authorities to act.” RussiaToday reported on April 23 that in a visit to one of Grozny’s pre-trial prisons, people incarcerated there said say had been beaten up and tortured into confessing to crimes, and that Hammarberg said he wanted this issue to be “clarified.”

Hammarberg also traveled to Ingushetia and met with its president, Murat Zyazikov, in Magas, the republican capital. According to Itar-Tass, Hammarberg thanked Zyazikov on behalf of the international community for assistance to the Chechen people during the “armed events” in Chechnya. The news agency reported that Zyazikov brought up the problem of displaced persons who had been compelled to flee the neighboring region of North Ossetia and found refuge in Ingushetia. Hammarberg promised to study the problem and find out what can be done to improve their lives.

It should be noted that on April 15, just a few days before Hammarberg started his visit to the North Caucasus, Dick Marty, the rapporteur on the situation in the North Caucasus for the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), issued an introductory memorandum on the situation in the North Caucasus. As Human Rights Watch noted in an April 15 press release, Marty’s memorandum highlighted ongoing human rights violations by security forces, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions, and noted impunity for these violations of international law. The memorandum, entitled “Legal remedies for human rights violations in the North Caucasus,” characterized the human rights situation in the North Caucasus as “by far the most alarming” in all 47 Council of Europe member states.

The Human Rights Watch press release, which also cited officials from Amnesty International, was headlined: “Council of Europe Failing on Russia.” It quoted both groups as saying that “all parts of the Council of Europe, including the Parliamentary Assembly, should be engaged in preventing further human rights abuses in the North Caucasus including by ensuring that Russia brings to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses.” The press released added: “Robust monitoring and public reporting on the North Caucasus by the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights will help ensure this.”

Meanwhile, Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial human rights group told Moskovsky Komsomolets in an interview published on April 24 that an analysis of the situation in Chechnya and neighboring republics over the last several months shows that life in Chechnya is “better and safer” now. While problems certainly remain in Chechnya, “they are problems of post-war restoration rather than of anything else,” he said. According to Cherkasov, reports of attacks and clashes between rebels and security forces indicate that the overall number of such attacks and clashes in Ingushetia is slightly below the same figure for Chechnya. He noted, however, that Ingushetia’s population is only a third of Chechnya’s.

Cherkasov said that the number of abductions in Chechnya in recent years “went down slowly at first” and then dropped more significantly in early 2007. Today, people disappear more frequently in Ingushetia than in Chechnya, he said.

Asked how many people disappeared without a trace in the second Chechen war, which began in 1999, Cherkasov said Memorial estimates the number at between 3,000 and 5,000. Memorial’s Violence Chronicles listed nearly 2,000 episodes and after the chronicles were published, the group received information on “more than 1,000 new episodes,” he said. “The problem is, there is a bona fide system of organized impunity in the Caucasus,” said Cherkasov. “Whenever a person disappears and the blame rests with Russian security structures, this system makes investigation of any such episode a sheer impossibility.”

Another big problem in Chechnya, said Cherkasov, is “inertia” caused by fear. “It is necessary to try and bring the guilty to justice,” he said. “It is necessary to try and find all the people who disappeared. At the very least, all their names should be published.”