On February 15, a court in Moscow dropped the case against the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta brought by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen leader had appealed to the court to prosecute the paper and several well-known Russian human rights activists on defamation charges, but Kadyrov later unexpectedly decided to withdraw his appeal (ITAR-TASS, February 15).
In 2009, Kadyrov won similar appeals in the Moscow courts against his critics among Russian journalists and rights activists. This time, according to Kadyrov’s spokesman, he decided to stop the legal proceedings against his opponents because Kadyrov’s mother asked him to respect the old age of the accused, in accordance with the Chechen traditions as well as appeals made by several Russian public figures (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 9). Kadyrov had asked the court to fine and even launch a criminal investigation against Novaya Gazeta as well as the Russian human rights activists Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Oleg Orlov of the Memorial human rights center. Orlov stated that Kadyrov’s attempts to launch the criminal investigations were manifestly unfounded and that was the reason they were withdrawn.
Rights activists and independent journalists accuse Kadyrov of kidnappings, torture, extra-legal killings in Chechnya, including involvement in the murder of their colleagues Natalya Estemirova, Zarema Sadullaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov in the summer 2009.
The harsh conditions for rights activists in Chechnya were once again highlighted in a recent incident in which a group of Russian human rights activists were unlawfully detained by Chechen law enforcement personnel. On February 7, Chechen police detained three human rights activists, Vladislav Sadykov, Dmitry Yegoshin and Roman Veretennikov, in the town of Shali. Those detained were members of a special mobile group that Russian rights activists set up in 2009, after the murders of their colleagues in the summer of that year. The Russian human rights community decided that it was too dangerous for the local Chechen activists to work on human rights issues and so people from other Russian regions were recruited for the task (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 8).
According to the detained activists, they were searched and interrogated, but not given any written document in support of the police actions or even given a proper verbal explanation, something that Russian law requires. They were released only the day after their de facto arrest, having spent the night in the Shali police station. As the details of the incident emerged, it appeared that the rights activists had not simply been intercepted while doing their work, but were actually lured by the Chechen police into a make-believe situation in which a local police chief pretended he had been victimized by the government authorities (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 11).
Recent events indicate that Ramzan Kadyrov, on the one hand, is trying to strike a conciliatory tone with human rights activists in Moscow, but on the other hand he does not tolerate any independent rights monitoring in Chechnya. Both sides of Kadyrov’s tactics perfectly fit into the Kremlin’s strategy of presenting the image of a “pacified Chechnya” while at the same time limiting the flow of information out of Chechnya as much as possible.
A recent incident showed why these policies are in place. The Russian security services reported the killing of 10 militants in the mountainous area between Ingushetia and Chechnya on February 11. The numbers of the alleged militants who were killed subsequently grew to 22 people as of February 15. However, several sources reported on February 13 that all or part of the killed were civilians who had been picking ramsons, or wild garlic, which is widely regarded as local delicacy in the North Caucasus and comes up very early on the sunlit sides of the hills. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that up to 14 people from among the estimated 20 killed were civilians. The spokesman for Ingushetia’s president spokesperson, Kaloi Akhilgov, confirmed four civilian deaths in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio. President Yunus-bek Yevkurov himself denied that there were any civilian casualties at first, but then confirmed there were some and conveyed his condolences.
Some of the civilians who died came from Ingush villages while others were from Chechen villages. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, instead of sending combat troops into the forests and risking their lives, the troops asked for helicopter support and as it was hard to distinguish between civilians and militants from the air, the helicopters fired on both categories. On February 14, the rebel website Kavkaz-Center confirmed there were some insurgents in the area, but claimed only five of them were killed in action and one was missing, while the rest were civilians.
The incident comes as the biggest embarrassment to the federal government since Moscow announced adjustments in its policies in the North Caucasus on January 19, promising a greater emphasis on the economic development of the region to reduce the social base for support of the militants. Even though no one on the federal level has admitted the mistake, the killing of civilians strikingly contradicts the recently stated policies of the Russian government in the North Caucasus and may require a reaction from its side.
Picking ramsons in the late winter/early spring is a very traditional activity for locals in the North Caucasus and it is unlikely the military did not know about it after operating in the region for so many years. It remains an open question what message the Russian military was trying to convey by using combat helicopters in an area where there were civilians. If the events are not properly investigated and appropriate apologies and compensation are not made, the new Moscow policies promoting economic development in the North Caucasus could suffer a serious setback.