Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 19

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s amnesty proposal, which last week received preliminary approval from the federal Duma, is intended in large part to serve the same purpose as his March constitutional referendum. That is to create the impression that peace, reconciliation and the rule of law are returning to Chechnya, with the support of all but a few separatist fanatics. But compared to the referendum, the amnesty has a key disadvantage: Most (though not all) of the key issues involve the proposed legislation’s formal text, not the largely hidden process by which that text will be put into practice. Ever since the president formally presented his proposal to the Russian parliament on May 12, skeptics have subjected it to withering criticism–most of the specific points of which Putin and his circle have not even seriously tried to address.

The most detailed critique so far was released by the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial on May 20. Memorial analyzed both draft parliamentary decrees produced by Putin’s staff. The decrees are entitled: “On the proclamation of an amnesty in connection with the adoption of the constitution of the Chechen republic,” and “On the procedure for implementing the decree of the State Duma” on that amnesty. Point by point, Memorial considered the articles of Russia’s criminal code that are specifically excluded from the amnesty.

These articles include (among many others) “banditism” (defined by the criminal code as participation in any “stable armed group” other than those controlled by the Russian state), the theft of arms, attempts on the lives of state employees, sabotage, interference with the activities of judicial or investigative organs, and attempts on the lives of policemen or soldiers. Also excluded from the proposed amnesty are violations of military discipline or resistance to military service (obviously in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, not in those of the Chechen secessionists).

Memorial noted the striking omission from this list of articles 357 (genocide) and 359 (mercenary combat) of the Russian criminal code. The federal side has been accused of genocide by both Chechens and foreigners. Mercenaries, meanwhile, are thought to have been used by both sides, but those fighting for the separatists are citizens of foreign states to whom the amnesty would not apply in any case. Also omitted from the list of exclusions is article 117, on torture. Memorial predicted that federal servicemen who used torture against Chechen detainees or arrestees would thus escape punishment.

The “main question,” in the view of Memorial, is this: “To which of the participants in illegal armed formations [NOTE: This is the Kremlin’s standard label for all secessionist military units, whether or not they engage in terrorism –LU] does this amnesty extend?” The question is crucial to understanding the “official point of view,” according to which “the main purpose of the amnesty is to offer to those members of illegal armed formations who have not tainted themselves with especially grave crimes the opportunity to return to peaceful lives.”

It would appear, noted Memorial, that such a chance will be provided only to those Chechens who have provided the most innocuous of services to the secessionist cause, such as “boiling porridge” for rebel fighters. “All those,” on the other hand, “who have taken any kind of part in real military action or attacks on the federal forces, may be incriminated under articles [of the criminal code] to which the amnesty does not apply.”

Thus, any Chechen who simply served as a combatant in a guerrilla unit can be accused of the murder or attempted murder of pro-Moscow servicemen. It would not even be necessary to prove that the accused personally planted a bomb or some other such action, merely that he took part in logistical or reconnaissance operations. “It turns out that almost every participant in armed resistance to the federal forces can be placed outside the amnesty’s limits.” Even if such a participant should happen to be amnestied in spite of that principle, “there are absolutely no guarantees that in the future the ‘competent organs’ may not at some moment decide to open a criminal case against the amnestied person.” This could occur under one of the sections of the criminal code cited in Putin’s proposed decree on amnesty. The real fate of such an amnestied person would be far from clear.