Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov’s proposal that Russia’s law-enforcement agencies be permitted to detain terrorists’ relatives as a “counter-hostage-taking” measure has elicited criticism from human rights activists and law-enforcement personnel alike. That proposal, however, was just one of several put forward by his office that observers fear could encourage criminal behavior by law enforcement under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Ustinov, who offered his proposal while speaking before the State Duma on October 29, made no attempt to sugarcoat it. “Detaining relatives and showing terrorists what may happen to their relatives could help save people’s lives, so let’s not close our eyes or put a diplomatic face on it,” he said. “When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” The idea, in fact, has already been put into practice: the Washington Post reported after the Beslan hostage-seizure that federal security forces had detained relatives of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and rebel warlord Shamil Basaev at the start of the hostage crisis. The paper quoted Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov’s envoy, as saying that 20 of Maskhadov’s relatives were detained and later released (Washington Post, September 7).
Not surprisingly, human rights activists strongly criticized Ustinov’s proposal. In a written appeal, the Memorial human rights group called on President Vladimir Putin to fire Ustinov, noting that the prosecutor general had called for both the detention of terrorists’ relatives and “simplified legal procedures” in dealing with terrorism cases. “These proposals by the prosecutor general have a serious historical tradition behind them,” Memorial’s appeal stated. “Specifically, we have in mind the decree of the TsIK SSSR [Central Executive Committee of the USSR] of 8 June 1934 punishing the relatives of traitors to the motherland with [internal] exile; the decree of the Presidium of the TsIK SSSR of 1 December 1934 ‘On the procedure for conducting cases of planning or carrying out terrorist acts’ (adopted immediately after the murder in Leningrad of S.M. Kirov); the operational order of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs [NKVD] No. 00486 of 15 August 1937 (in the vernacular — ‘the order on family members of traitors to the motherland’); and also a number of other laws, decrees and bureaucratic acts from 1930-1940” (Memo.ru, October 30). Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow Helsinki Group said that Ustinov’s “counter-hostage-taking” proposal was cause for “great anxiety.” “Something completely inhuman is being proposed as a measure for counteracting terror,” she shuddered (Utro.ru, October 29).
But even government supporters and members of the security establishment were critical. “One should not take innocent people hostage and force them to take responsibility according to the principle of ‘son-for-father’ or ‘brother-for-brother’,” said Lyubov Sliska, a Duma deputy speaker and member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. “It was this way before” (Gzt.ru, October 31). A professor at the Academy of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Alexander Plekhanov, said: “A system of hostage-taking has nothing in common with legality, will be condemned by the entire world community, and is not justified either from a juridical or a moral point of view” (Vedomosti, November 1).
Likewise, an official with the anti-terrorism center “T” of the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GUBOP) said of Ustinov’s proposal, “How will we essentially differ from the terrorists if we will shoot people simply because they are relatives of Basaev or Maskhadov? Of course, in theory, such a measure could reduce the number of members of [illegal armed formations] who would like to earn a little money in a raid on Moscow or Nazran. However, in practice we will incite against us all of those who are still loyal to us” (Izvestiya, October 30).
Equally worrying to some were comments made by Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov at a Duma roundtable on October 28 concerning a draft law that would add various “social and legal protections” for law-enforcement personnel to the federal law “On operational-investigative activities.” These protections would, among other things, effectively free law-enforcement personnel who infiltrate organized crime and terrorist groups from prosecution for crimes they commit while carrying out their missions (Lenta.ru, October 28, Novye izvestiya, November 1).
As Novye izvestiya noted: “Independent experts believe that such innovations could give siloviki carte blanche for extra-judicial reprisals. Even members of the Duma’s Security Committee are expressing alarm. ‘We will let the genie out of the bottle and run into a lawless situation in which every policeman on duty will create a bacchanalia under the cover of the new law’, the deputies say.”
Lev Levinson of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute agreed that such a law opens up the possibility of extra-judicial reprisals by undercover agents. “It is necessary to define and lock in a balance of interests by which an operative can penetrate a criminal milieu in order to protect society,” he told Novye izvestiya. “Otherwise the amendments to the law will give special services employees the right to . . . carry out lawless actions.”
Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the Yabloko party, was much harsher in his evaluation of the amendments outlined by Deputy Prosecutor General Kolesnikov. “Having removed all of the restrictions on their selfish interests, the special services will handle without kid gloves not only criminals, but the general population,” Mitrokhin told the paper. “I don’t rule out that a complete freedom of action for the siloviki will become the source of extra-judicial reprisals and politically-motivated persecution” (Novye izvestiya, November 1).