On June 4, the Russian State Duma held a hearing devoted to the problem of those individuals–both from the Russian military and MVD, and among Chechen civilians–who have disappeared without trace or have been kidnapped since August of 1999 on the territory of the Chechen Republic. Among those participating in the hearing was Lord Frank Judd of Great Britain, a co-chairman of the joint working group on human rights of the State Duma and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
In a biting commentary devoted to the hearing, journalists Marina Ozerova and Yuliya Kalinina wrote in the June 5 issue of Moskovsky Komsomolets: “The broad discussion of those persons who have disappeared without trace, which took place yesterday in the State Duma, represented nothing more than a life-size show put on specially for Lord Judd, who had arrived in Moscow on a planned visit. It was deemed necessary to demonstrate to the lord that, while we do not always succeed in observing human rights in Chechnya, we are working on the problem. We gather together–both the authorities and civic organizations–and exchange opinions, as well as having ‘brainstorming’ sessions. Such scenes usually produce a good impression on a Western man. Unfortunately, that is the only thing that we can do to make PACE happy.”
The two journalists noted that the members of the Duma themselves exhibited absolutely no interest in the hearing: “There were extremely few deputies at the hearings–literally about ten of them. After all, they are completely uninterested in Chechnya. That is a dead theme for them…. Chechnya has been wholly given over to the president. Over a year-and-a-half, the Duma has adopted not one resolution [on Chechnya] and was holding hearings on Chechnya only for the second time.”
While the hearing had seemingly been arranged largely for the benefit of Lord Judd and the Council of Europe, a number of the presentations made during the session were nevertheless of interest. The chief military prosecutor of Russia, Mikhail Kislitsyn, reported that, from August of 1999 to the present, the military procuracy has opened seventy-six cases in connection with crimes committed by Russian soldiers against the local populace of Chechnya, 27 of them being on a charge of murder. Vasily Smirnov, a representative of the Chief Organizational-Mobilizational Administration of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, said that, since August of 1999, twenty-eight Russian soldiers have disappeared without trace in Chechnya. He added that, during the time of the present counterterrorist operation, 2,682 unidentified bodies have been found, of whom 92 percent were later identified. An official of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, stated that, since 1999, about 900 persons have been kidnapped or have disappeared without trace in Chechnya; of this number, 525 were subsequently “located and freed.” The fate of the remaining 375 is not known (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kommersant, June 5).
In his address, President Putin’s human rights representative to the North Caucasus, Vladimir Kalamanov, reported that an inventory has been compiled of peaceful inhabitants of Chechnya who have disappeared without trace in Chechnya during the time of the conflict. A total of 930 names had been entered on the list; subsequently 366 of that number were located, eighteen of whom had died. “The number of the dead,” Anna Dolgov, a correspondent for the Associated Press, commented, “did not include dozens of victims whose bodies were found this winter near Russia’s main military base [Khankala] outside the Chechen capital Grozny. Many of those bodies were identified by relatives as civilians detained by federal troops, but the military denied accusations of executing detainees.” Kalamanov himself, it emerged, was prepared to admit that arbitrary detentions did sometimes result in disappearances. “The number of reports [of missing people],” he remarked, “increases sharply after so-called mopping up operations and passport checks, because many checks have been carried out without the participation of representatives of the prosecutors’ office or local administration” (AP, June 5).
The chairman of the hearing, Vladimir Lukin, a Duma deputy speaker, said that up to 1,500 persons in Chechnya are currently missing without trace. Such statistics, he added, “represent only the tip of the iceberg.” Among those missing, Lukin said, were 260 Russian soldiers as well as thirteen personnel of the FSB (Lenta.ru, June 4; Izvestia, 5 June).
A representative of the FSB reported that his agency “knows the persons responsible” for the disappearances in Chechnya and then listed “all the bandits known to him.” A strong difference of opinion emerged between the FSB spokesman and a representative of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, who also addressed the hearing. “The ‘mothers’ contend that soldiers captured by the rebels should be considered prisoners-of-war. The FSB insists that they are not at all prisoners-of-war but rather persons ‘detained against their will,’ since we do not have a war, but a counterterrorist operation.” The Moskovskii komsomolets journalists elected to side with the “mothers” on this issue: “The ‘mothers’ are right. A real war is taking place in the country” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 5).
In comments made at the hearing, Lord Judd singled out three sets of problems which presently concern the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly. “First,” he began, “the federal force in Chechnya should limit its activity to the struggle against terrorists…. The servicemen should demonstrate that they are on the side of the people of Chechnya, instead of driving them to the terrorists.” “Second,” Judd went on, “violations of human rights in Chechnya must be prevented and a more weighty progress should be achieved in that sphere.” “Third,” he concluded, “it is necessary to step up investigations into all crimes committed by individuals under the federal command” (Russian agencies, June 5).
The most widely commented upon presentation at the hearing was that of retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov, the elected representative from Chechnya to the Russian State Duma. During the course of his remarks, Aslakhanov affirmed that he is prepared to resign from the Duma if the situation in his republic does not significantly change for the better. “Why do people disappear [in Chechnya]?” he asked. “That is the question which should be answered today.” The main reason that people disappear, he went on, is connected with the so-called military mopping up operations, which he described as “anticonstitutional, illegal and criminal acts.”
The Russian president, Aslakhanov noted, has decided to pass control over the antiterrorist campaign from the Defense Ministry to the FSB. That decision, however, has de facto not been implemented, judging by the continuance of the mopping-up operations. There were also instances, Aslakhanov underlined, of “extrajudicial punishments, when Chechens are executed without trial or investigation.” And “we [can also] speak about some large burial places” located on the premises of Russian military units stationed in Chechnya (Russian agencies, June 5).
Aslakhanov maintained that it is necessary to give the Russian media free access to Chechnya “for the sake of law and order.” So far, he noted, “they do not like correspondents there,” which is proven by the what happened to correspondent Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta. “I remember the extensive show organized against her,” Aslakhanov recalled (Russian agencies, June 5).
Shortly after the Duma hearings, Aslakhanov held a press conference in Moscow during which he elaborated upon his views. He reiterated that he would resign from the Duma in the fall of 2001 if there are no “visible positive changes in the ensuring of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the republic.” At present, the situation in the republic, he emphasized, has gone from bad to worse. The military are engaged in straight-out “robbery” at the numerous checkpoints in the republic. “Mopping up operations” must be halted and replaced exclusively by “special operations” run by the FSB. Aslakhanov, however, was also critical of the FSB: “[In Chechnya] everyone knows who the rebels are. And the special services know them. They pick them up and then free them an hour later, explaining this by the fact that ‘we have entered into contact with them.’ The mopping up operations catch only the innocent or those who have something to offer as a ransom, but such persons are fewer and fewer in Chechnya” (Strana.ru, June 7).
On the subject of the Chechen refugees languishing in Ingushetia, Aslakhanov stressed that “they cannot [today] return to the territory of Chechnya despite the guarantees of the head of the Chechen government, Stanislav Il’yasov. A more realistic deadline would be June of 2002.” Aslakhanov revealed that he had spoken with Il’yasov about the matter and that the latter had “repudiated the statement ascribed to him [about a June 2001 deadline].” The main reasons that the refugees cannot return today, Aslakhanov underscored, are “an absence of housing,” “an absence of necessary food” and the ongoing military mopping up operations (Strana.ru, June 7).
Aslakhanov criticized much of the coverage of the war in the Russian media: “We never see any objective information about Chechnya in our ‘very free press,’ which is controlled by oligarchs who print nothing without the approval of [presidential spokesman] Sergei Yastrzhembsky” (Strana.ru, June 7).
On the issue of possible future elections for a head of the Chechen Republic–it is not yet known whether the regime will permit them–Aslakhanov stated, “If I do not see any worthy people among the potential candidates, then I will give my agreement [to run].” He went on to note that many “Chechen oligarchs” are prepared to finance the campaign of one or another candidate, with the proviso that they be given the prime ministership of Chechnya as a reward. Potential candidates for the leadership of the republic are, Aslakhanov noted: “the president of the Moscow Industrial Bank, Abubakar Arsamkov; the head of the firm ‘Russian Lotto,’ Malik Saidullaev; the former mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov; the present head of the republic, Akhmad Kadyrov; and the leader of the Chechen regional branch of the [pro-Putin] ‘Unity’ party, Lecha Magomadov.” It seemed evident that Aslakhanov liked his chances against such a field (Strana.ru, June 7).
To conclude, the Russian State Duma appears on June 4 to have staged a kind of “Potemkin village” for Lord Judd of PACE. As has been noted, virtually no Duma deputies chose to attend the hearings, thus signaling their complete disinterest in the session’s subject matter. Despite that fact, the hearings may nonetheless have produced some worthwhile results.