Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 40

Neo-Stalinist concepts of collective responsibility for individual crimes are still thriving in Russia’s security agencies. According to an October 29 article by Maria Tsvetkova and Yelena Rudnieva on the website, some of the siloviki are proposing to formalize by law the practice of punishing the relatives of terrorists—and even of people suspected of terrorism.

Last Friday, the State Duma hosted Vladimir Ustinov, Nikolai Patrushev and Rashid Nurgaliev—respectively, the heads of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry—to discuss the Putin administration’s anti-terrorism strategy. According to the correspondents’ sources, the leaders of the Duma decided at the last minute to receive the security chiefs in an on-the-record session open to journalists. The two journalists suggested that the siloviki probably sought an open session precisely for the purpose of sending a signal to potential terrorists.

Ustinov announced that he wants to include the sanctions against accused terrorists’ relatives in anti-terrorist legislation that the executive branch plans to propose in November. As he explained it to the deputies, in future hostage-taking episodes the security agencies would have a formal statutory right to seize and detain the relatives of the suspected hostage-takers. The government would then let the terrorists know that it will do to these “counter-hostages” whatever the terrorists do to their own hostages. (The word “kill” was not used, but that was the clear implication.) Even if the terrorists did not murder their own hostages, the government would confiscate the property of the terrorists’ relatives. “I think that whoever comes to us with sword in hand should himself perish by the sword,” said Ustinov. The deputies present burst into applause.

Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov told journalists afterward that he had not previously heard of Ustinov’s idea, but that the Duma will consider it seriously if it is in fact included in the executive branch’s upcoming draft legislation.

Alu Alkhanov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, also failed to speak out against the proposal. In response to questioning during an Ekho Moskvy radio broadcast on November 1, he said that the taking of such counter-hostages will be put into practice if the Duma formally authorizes it by law. “It seems that the prosecutor general had good reasons for that initiative,” he told the radio station’s listeners. “If the law is adopted, the government and governmental institutions will abide by it.”

Nurgaliev, whose Interior Ministry is widely considered to be one of the most corrupt institutions in Russia, proposed to enlist the help of the country’s equally corruption-ridden private security agencies in the struggle against terrorists. He told the assembled Duma deputies that at present these structures employ some 450,000 people.

In an exchange with FSB director Patrushev, the notorious ultra-nationalist deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky insisted that citizens accused of terrorism should be denied the right to a jury trial. Patrushev agreed.

Human-rights activists and independent journalists raised doubts about both the effectiveness and the morality of these new proposals. In a November 1 commentary for Novaya gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya sarcastically suggested that Ustinov wants to confiscate the property of terrorists’ relatives because “he knows human nature quite well and therefore stipulates that a person going off to die and to kill others will fear most of all that someone will take away his VCR or television.” More seriously, she opined that the prosecutor general’s plans for accelerated, simplified trials of terror suspects would turn out to be “nothing other than the revival of the mass purges” of the Stalin years. “Nobody will trouble himself about proof,” she wrote. “The participation of a [defense] lawyer and a prosecutor in the trial will be purely decorative.” In fact, the prosecutor’s role would only be “to convey further threats to the family [of the accused] so that they will not dare to protest lest things get even worse.” The essence of the new law would be to extend to all of Russia the abandonment of the principle that an accused party is presumed innocent until proven guilty—an abandonment which has already taken place within Chechnya.

Indeed, Politkovskaya emphasized that the Ustinov proposal is only a “relative innovation,” in that the arrest of Chechen civilians as hostages for no other reason than that they are the relatives of separatist guerrillas has for some time been standard practice for the Kadyrov clan’s private army. That practice includes the torture of such hostages so as to induce the surrender of their husbands, sons and brothers—torture which often takes place in the very presence of employees of the republican prosecutor’s office, who “then announce to the people and to the authorities that everything has been done in accordance with the law.” As a practical matter the passage of a new federal law, concluded the Novaya gazeta journalist, is not even necessary to untie the hands of the pro-Moscow forces within Chechnya. Its real purpose is to produce an effect on Russians outside Chechnya: “Any of us might now go out to buy a loaf of bread and never come home again—or come home only 20 years later, just as in Chechnya people go off to the bazaar and disappear forever.”

In another November 1 commentary for Novaya gazeta, the independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out that Ustinov’s proposals “directly contradict international human-rights treaties and also the Geneva Convention of 1949, which clearly states in article 34 that the taking of hostages is forbidden….From a legal point of view it would be necessary first to denounce the Geneva Convention and other pacts, and only then adopt the prosecutor general’s proposed legislation.”

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Novaya gazeta that she could not imagine the federal parliament passing such a law. “Even if the current Duma does pass it,” she said, “I am confident that it will not be signed by the president. Otherwise such measures will cover both the president and the country with shame.”

Opposition to the Ustinov plan was voiced not only by such human-rights activists, who often find themselves on the margins of political debate in today’s media, but even by figures such as Aleksandr Plekhanov, a professor at the FSB’s own training academy. On November 1, the usually pro-Kremlin Novosti news agency quoted Plekhanov as opining that the taking of counter-hostages would “not have anything to do with justice. It is not justified either from the legal or moral point of view and will be certainly condemned by the global community.”

Commenting on the argument that Israeli authorities sometimes demolish the homes of Palestinian suicide bombers and their relatives, Sergei Zhavoronkov, a terrorism specialist with the Institute for the Economy in Transition, said that the Israelis “follow purely economic logic: Many Palestinians send their children to join the ranks of suicide bombers in order to receive financial aid from organizations sponsoring terrorist activities.” He also noted that such demolishing of homes is opposed by many Israelis who consider it to be of dubious legality.

A commentary published by Vremya novostei argued that in any case retaliation against the relatives of the most fanatical terrorists would in any case be ineffective: The most extreme Islamists would see the loss of their relatives as actually enhancing their own aura of religious heroism.