Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 39

Several thousand people in Paris yesterday marked the 56th anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s mass deportation of the Chechen and Ingush peoples with a demonstration in the center of the city. The demonstrators demanded, among other things, that the mandate of the international war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia be extended to cover Chechnya (Radio Liberty, NTV, February 23). Meanwhile, the group Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which was operating on the ground in Chechnya when the latest military operation began last autumn, released a report yesterday accusing the Russian military forces in Chechnya of crimes against humanity (Reuters, February 23).

The anniversary of the Chechen deportation came on the heels of fresh allegations concerning atrocities by Russian troops in Chechnya. Chechen refugees have accused Russian “kontraktniki”–professional soldiers hired by the Russian military to fight in the breakaway republic–of committing a massacre in Aldi, a neighborhood in the Chechen capital of Djohar, on February 5. Eyewitnesses among refugees who have fled to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia said that Russian soldiers in Aldi murdered scores of civilians during a drunken spree of looting and arson. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has said that it has information that the rampaging troops killed at least sixty-two civilians in Aldi (including women and elderly men), and that it has collected eyewitness testimony concerning thirty-four murders. Vladimir Kalamanov, recently named as Acting President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for human rights in Chechnya, promised to investigate all such allegations of human rights abuses personally and to ensure that international organizations are allowed to work in Chechnya (Reuters, Moscow Times, February 23).

The alleged massacre in Aldi is only the latest allegation involving the killing of civilians. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch accused Russian troops of carrying out thirty-eight extrajudicial executions of civilians in Djohar and called on Putin to investigate and punish those responsible for what it called ” terrible war crimes” (Moscow Times, February 11). Human rights activists in both Russia and the West have also accused the Russian forces of indiscriminately bombing civilians during its operations putatively aimed at eradicating Chechen terrorists. Last week, Sergei Kovalev, a deputy in the State Duma who was Russia’s human rights ombudsman and a leading critic of the 1994-1996 Chechen campaign, said that the high number of civilian casualties in the current military operation in Chechnya made it “close to genocide” (Radio Liberty, February 18). Human rights groups have also accused Russian security forces of beating and torturing detainees in so-called “filtration camps” in Chechnya, which are ostensibly used to incarcerate suspected Chechen rebel fighters (see the Monitor, February 18). Last week, Human Rights Watch, citing the testimony of former inmates, charged that guards at the Chernokozov filtration camp near Djohar had tortured, beaten and even raped detainees (Moscow Times, February 16, 19). Radio Liberty has cited eyewitness reports that its correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who was detained by Russian forces in Chechnya in mid-January and then purportedly exchanged for Russian POWs earlier this month, was detained and severely beaten in the Chernokozov camp. During the 1994-1996, Russian human rights groups accused the Russian military of beating and torturing detainees held in filtration camps.

The alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya have provoked a wave of criticism by both Western human rights groups and media, and–though more muted–from Western governments. This undoubtedly is a major factor in the Putin administration’s decision to create the position of special representative for human rights in Chechnya. Russian human rights activists are split over the significance of that move. Valentin Gefter, head of the Human Rights Institute in Moscow, described Putin’s appointment of Vladimir Kalamanov as “window dressing.” Aleksandr Cherkasov, a member of the human rights group Memorial, said he believed that Kalamanov is committed to being more than a figurehead (Moscow Times, February 23). Sergei Kovalev called Kalamanov’s appointment a “public relations exercise” unlikely to result in investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations by Russian troops in Chechnya (Radio Liberty, February 18).