Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 2

Recent months have seen a significant change in the Russian forces’ tactics in Chechnya, according to one of Russia’s most respected human rights organizations. Eliza Musaeva, who heads the office of Memorial in Ingushetia, told Radio Liberty that “the military has stopped their massive ‘mopping-up’ operations [zachistki], which attracted such enormous attention, and have begun targeted operations, usually carried out at night. The result: People disappear, their corpses are blown up and the population is powerless.” According to Memorial there were more than 450 cases of unexplained disappearances of Chechens in 2002, a sharp rise from previous years. Unlike the zachistki, these targeted operations are aimed at specific houses rather than at entire neighborhoods, and are far more likely to sweep in civilians of both sexes, not just young men. Memorial also told the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, as reported by Prague Watchdog on January 23, that it has become more and more common for the corpses of such kidnap victims to be found torn apart by explosives.

A January 26 report from Memorial charged that from May to September 2002, “there were four zachistka operations: in Mesker-Yurt (May-June), Tevzeni (August), Tsotsin-yurt (September), Chechen-Aul (June), three of which resulted in killing and disappearance of civilians–and in all cases a number of incidents of humiliation, as well as pillage and robbery, took place.” The report concluded that a March 2002 order from the Russian military setting forth strict procedures for such operations had simply been ignored in practice.

Perhaps in response to such charges, Russian authorities are now trying to emphasize what they say are efforts to prosecute atrocities. Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on January 22 that twenty-six servicemen, including four officers, had been convicted in 2002 of crimes in Chechnya. He said that military courts are now considering another fifty-seven cases, including fourteen murder charges. Nevertheless, with the recent insanity finding for the accused Colonel Yury Budanov, it remains true that no senior Russian officer has ever been found guilty.

The “enforced disappearances” the Russians are responsible for were also cited in a joint statement issued by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on January 27, in which they called on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to address human rights issues in Chechnya. The three groups condemned “the targeting of civilians by both sides to the conflict, in violation of international humanitarian law; the intensified campaign of threats against and unlawful killing of pro-Moscow civil servants by Chechen rebel forces; and the continuing enforced disappearances and unlawful killings perpetrated by Russian troops.” Separatist forces, the statement noted, are “believed to have unlawfully killed seven civil servants and abducted another nine people since mid-November 2002.”