Memorial: Vostok’s Crimes Must be Probed

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 20

Kavkazky Uzel on May 19 quoted a Chechen law-enforcement source as saying that officers of the Vostok battalion, the special unit subordinated to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and commanded by Sulim Yamadaev, are under investigation by the military prosecutor’s office and could face criminal charges. The source said those under investigation include officers who had not reported for duty in the unit for a long period, and that some of these had actually quit Vostok following the armed confrontation between some of the unit’s members and members of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s bodyguard service on April 14 in the town of Gudermes. The source said that some of the Vostok members, during a conversation with Kadyrov, had told the Chechen president that they wanted to serve in Chechen police units.

“Nonetheless, it should be noted that servicemen must above all fulfill the demands of army regulations and be governed above all by the law, not their own interests,” the source said. “Servicemen of the Vostok battalion serve on the basis of contracts with Russian Defense Ministry, and before they leave, they must receive corresponding permission from the military department to sever their contracts. Failure to report for duty for ten days already entails criminal liability.” According to Kavkazky Uzel, the source did not indicate how many former Vostok officers had joined Chechen police units.

The website noted that after the April 14 incident, Kadyrov claimed that some 300 members of the Vostok battalion had decided to leave the unit. The website reported that at least two of the battalion’s company commanders had gone over to Kadyrov who, along with Chechnya’s parliament and human rights ombudsman, called for the battalion to be dissolved or, at the very least, its commander, Sulim Yamadaev, to be removed. Kadyrov announced earlier this month that Yamadaev had been removed and that his command functions were being carried out by someone else, who Kadyrov did not identify (Chechnya Weekly, May 16).

However, there has been no official confirmation from the Defense Ministry that the unit has been liquidated or that Yamadaev has been removed as its commander. Indeed, reported on May 19 neither the Vostok battalion been disbanded nor Yamadaev removed as its commander. The website quoted a military source as saying that a decision concerning the battalion’s command would be taken as a result of a “planned” certification, not a special one, and quoted a source in the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office as saying that there can be no “automatic transfer” of Vostok servicemen to Chechnya’s republican police force because Defense Ministry contract servicemen must follow a special procedure to end their contracts, and any violation of that procedure is in violation of the law.

Meanwhile, the Memorial human rights group has demanded that crimes committed by members of the Vostok battalion be fully investigated. Memorial noted that while, in the wake of confrontation that took place in Gudermes on April 14 between Vostok battalion members and members of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s bodyguard, Vostok officers are being investigated for failing to report for duty for more than ten days, such a reaction by the federal authorities is inadequate given that Vostok members have been accused of far more serious crimes, including extortion, kidnapping and murder (Chechnya Weekly, April 17 and 24; May 1, 8 and 16).

“The crimes imputed to the commander of the Vostok battalion and his subordinates are by no means excesses on the part of the perpetrators, but are the result of the actions of a consciously created system,” Memorial said in a statement. The group said that since the start of the “counter-terrorist” operation in Chechnya, federal forces have neither followed the law nor used legally-sanctioned force, with thousands of people in the republic disappearing as a result of the “death squad” tactics, including abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings.

“Then, in the process of ‘Chechenization’ of the conflict, the authority to employ similar unlawful violence was to a large degree transferred from the federal power structures to the local ones, comprised of ethnic Chechens,” the Memorial statement read. It noted that the Gorets commando unit, which was subordinated to the Federal Security Service (FSB) and headed by Movladi Baisarov, who was later killed by agents of Kadyrov in Moscow, employed such illegal methods, and that once the unit was broken up, its members were absorbed into other local Chechen security structures without the unit’s crimes having been investigated.

Memorial also noted members of the Chechen president’s security service and the so-called Anti-Terrorist Center, another unit that was loyal to Kadyrov, were also involved in abductions and “disappearances” that were never investigated or prosecuted.

“It must not be allowed that the case of the Vostok battalion ends only with the removal of its commander and the firing of a number of his subordinates,” Memorial said in its statement, adding that it will watch closely to see whether such crimes committed by Vostok battalion members are properly investigated. “We hope that the investigations of these crimes are seen through to completion, regardless of the ebb and flow of the conflict between administrative and power structures in Chechnya,” the statement read. “We hope that in the course of the investigations of crimes committed by more than one person, the remaining persons will not be put in the category of ‘persons not identified by the investigation’ and that the investigations will bring to light all the participants in these crimes, not only the Vostok battalion’s command.”

The Memorial statement added that crimes committed by members of security forces acting on orders from superiors should not be qualified as the actions of a “criminal group,” but that any investigation should “name and condemn the very system and practice of the activities of ‘death squads’ [and] the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have happened in the Chechen Republic.”

Meanwhile, Kavkazky Uzel quoted Human Rights Watch researcher Tatyana Lokshina as saying that the conflict between Ramzan Kadyrov and Sulim Yamadaev is a graphic illustration of just how unstable the situation in Chechnya really is.