Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 1

In what may be remembered as a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has agreed for the first time to consider legal cases accusing Russian authorities of atrocities in Chechnya. All six cases were brought by Chechens now living as refugees in Ingushetia and involve actions of the Russian military in 1999 and 2000, the first phase months of the Russian Federation’s second Chechen war. The plaintiffs charge that Russian servicemen tortured and murdered their relatives (in some cases by summary execution) and destroyed civilian property, and that the Russian warplanes engaged in indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

Russian legal authorities launched criminal investigations in all six cases, but never identified any suspects or filed criminal charges, then closed all the investigations. The court’s January 16 statement noted that the Chechen plaintiffs “complain that the investigation was ineffective and that they had no access to effective remedies on the national level.” But the Moscow-appointed human rights envoy for Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, told Interfax that the court was simply playing “a political game.”

The court’s agreement to consider the cases was hailed by Boris Altshuler, head of the Moscow-based Rights of the Child organization, who said to Radio Liberty that the court proceedings could “help the Russian president develop at least some minimal control over his own armed forces and special forces, which he doesn’t have today. They act autonomously from the president and Russia in their own financial interests.”

On the other hand, Akhmed Zakaev, the Chechen separatist leader now awaiting an extradition hearing in England, said that the Strasbourg court’s proceedings were insufficient. “The Strasbourg court does not have the authority to bring to trial those who committed these terrible crimes,” he told Radio Liberty. “What is happening in the [Chechen] Republic does not call [merely] for financial compensation, because it is mainly murder, violence and humiliation, which is impossible to compensate financially. For three or four years now, our leadership has been seeking the creation of an international committee to investigate these horrible crimes with the subsequent creation of an international tribunal that would put the war criminals on trial.”

Final verdicts in such cases usually come down within 12 to 18 months, but a court spokesman said that it would not be possible to guarantee how quickly the court would be able to act on the Chechen cases.