Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 12

On the eve of the Strasbourg roundtable on Chechnya, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report stating that continuing disappearances in Chechnya have now reached the level of a crime against humanity. In a March 21 press release, the New York-based group cited estimates by Russian human rights groups that between 3,000 and 5,000 people, mostly civilians or otherwise unarmed persons, have disappeared in the republic since the beginning of the conflict in 1999. The “vast majority” of the disappearances are perpetrated either by Russian federal forces or, increasingly, local Chechen security forces ultimately subordinate to Russian authorities, HRW stated. The group’s 57-page briefing paper details 43 cases of enforced disappearances that occurred in 2004, which the group documented during a two-week research trip to Chechnya in January-February 2005. HRW also found several dozen new cases of disappearances, most of which occurred in the past months, while the Russian government was claiming to the international community that the situation in Chechnya was normalizing.

HRW was also highly critical of the European Union for declining to introduce a resolution on Chechnya at the 61st session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which is currently taking place in Geneva, as it has done in previous years. “It is astounding that the European Union has decided to take no action on Chechnya at the Commission,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “To look the other way while crimes against humanity are being committed is unconscionable…Thousands of people have ‘disappeared’ in Chechnya since 1999, with the full knowledge of the Russian authorities. Witnesses now tell us that the atmosphere of utter arbitrariness and intimidation is ‘worse than a war.'”

Indeed, the HRW report claims that “the fear-stricken atmosphere is astounding” in areas of Chechnya under the effective control of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s first deputy prime minister in charge of security. “People who have survived the chaos of two wars and actively protested the abuses perpetrated in their villages are now too terrified to open the door even to their neighbors, let alone to complain,” the report states. “In some cases, people choose not to report the ‘disappearances’ of their relatives to the authorities, hoping that their silence might protect their remaining family members.” It quotes a woman from a village in the Shali district who chose not to file a formal complaint about the recent disappearance of her son as saying: “I searched [for him] everywhere, but did not write a petition [to the prosecutor]…Here, many who write petitions [themselves] ‘disappear’…I was afraid…I have two other sons at home. If I were to tell someone, [they] might take them away as well.”

Chechen officials in Strasbourg for the PACE roundtable on Chechnya took issue with such criticism by human rights groups. “If we say that 213 people have been kidnapped in Chechnya this year, this means that it is really so, and not 400, contrary to what some participants in the discussion have been alleging,” said Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, Itar-Tass reported on March 21. “We do admit that human rights and legal abuse is still a reality in Chechnya, and that the state of affairs in the social and political sphere is not as good as it should be. At the same time, we state it with responsibility that the republican leadership has been working really hard to improve the situation. And the situation has been improving. Nobody knows this better than we do.”

Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev took direct aim at Human Rights Watch. “This international organization has no representatives in Chechnya,” he told Interfax in a March 21 telephone interview. “We do not know what sources of information the organization is using. Anyone can make up any figures…Is the increased activity of human rights organizations connected with the roundtable meeting in Strasbourg? There is no doubt about this. All human rights non-governmental organizations have to show their work somehow and they are spreading all sorts of information.” Like Alkhanov, Dudaev admitted that kidnappings of civilians still occur in Chechnya but insisted they have greatly diminished. “There was the problem of kidnapping, and there still is, but it is not as bad as it was several years ago. I cannot say that people do not disappear. But now we are dealing with isolated cases, and this does not happen every day.” The kidnapping problem, he said, is getting constant attention from President Alkhanov, who chairs special meetings with security forces on the issue.

Ironically, the HRW report quotes Dudaev as having said on January 16 of this year with reference to disappearances that the “past year in Chechnya has shown the greatest spike in the numbers registered of this type of crime.” He said that “about 500 people” were abducted in 2004 “and that the whereabouts of the majority of them are still unknown.”

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said the fact that the countries of the European Union would not submit a draft resolution on Chechnya to this year’s session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights was evidence that “common sense has prevailed at last,” Itar-Tass reported on March 17.