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Friday, June 27, 2008

Russia is Persecuting Ingushetia

The International Herald Tribune reports:

Though violence in Chechnya has decreased markedly in recent years, fighting between Muslim insurgents and Russian troops threatens to engulf a neighboring region, a human rights group said in a report released on Wednesday.

The group, Human Rights Watch, asserted that a recent spike in insurgent attacks in the region, Ingushetia, has provoked a spate of kidnappings, torture and arbitrary killings of innocent civilians by law enforcement reminiscent of earlier rights abuses in Chechnya.

Government officials from the region have disputed the report's findings.

Ingushetia, a tiny Muslim republic on Chechnya's western border, has long been considered a relatively peaceful enclave in the North Caucasus, a mountainous region in Russia's south. Recently, however, it has become a haven for rebels fleeing a brutal counter-insurgency in Chechnya.

The aggressive anti-insurgent policies of Chechnya's president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, have brought a modicum of stability to the republic after two wars and nearly half a decade of internecine fighting, though at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties.

Ingushetia could suffer a similar, if less brutal, fate, according to the 105-page report that is based on interviews conducted over the last year with local officials and victims of violence.

The region's government recorded 86 attacks on law enforcement in 2007 and another 28 attacks in the first three months of 2008. A total of 65 servicemen were killed in the republic in 2007.

In response, the Russian Interior Ministry has stationed thousands of federal troops in the republic, who, along with their local colleagues, often fail to discriminate between legitimate insurgent targets and civilians when conducting operations, Human Rights Watch says.

"Certainly you cannot fully compare Ingushetia and Chechnya," Tanya Lokshina, the researcher for Human Rights Watch who wrote the report, said in at a press conference.

"At the same time," she said, "the kind of abuses that we now see in Ingushetia are the abuses that used to characterize Chechnya: extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, abduction-style detentions."

The human rights group Memorial recorded 29 cases in 2007 in which police detained civilians without providing grounds for doing so. One of those detained has been confirmed dead and three are still missing.

The organization also documented 40 extrajudicial killings by government forces last year. The report by Human Rights Watch describes several of these in graphic detail, including the killing of Rakhim Amriev, a six-year-old boy shot when security forces raided his family's house on November 9, 2007 in search of a relative.

According to testimony from the boy's family and other witnesses, three servicemen, backed by about 100 soldiers and security officials, burst into the family's home in the village of Chemulga with barely a warning and opened fire. Rakhim Amriev was killed immediately, shot in the head. His mother, Raisa, was shot in the arm.

The incident provoked a nationwide outcry, prompting the government to launch an investigation, something it rarely does in such instances. After more than seven months, however, no suspect has been identified.

Officials in Ingushetia, including the Kremlin-backed president, Murat M. Zyazikov, a former general with the Federal Security Service, have regularly denied reports of human rights abuses, calling the situation in the republic stable.

Kerim-Sultan A. Kokurkhaev, Ingushetia's government-appointed human rights ombudsman, said at the press conference on Wednesday that the situation in Ingushetia was "no worse than in any other territory" in Russia. He called the work of Human Rights Watch and other rights groups "fascist," adding that the Human Rights Watch report was "meant to destabilize the situation."

The official acknowledged that people had been kidnapped by federal troops and that in the fight against terrorism there had been human rights violations, but he praised the government for a slight decrease recently in violent crimes.

Though many in Ingushetia once backed the government's strong-armed tactics, such support seems to have ebbed in recent months. Violence against civilians has sparked raucous street protests that have rankled the authorities. Some of the more vocal critics have become the victims of reprisals, as the government has moved to restrict public demonstrations and quash them when they arise.

Ingushetia has also become dangerous for journalists critical of the government's counter-insurgency tactics. In November last year, unknown men kidnapped and beat three journalists and a human rights worker planning to cover an anti-government protest. They were later released, but warned to leave Ingushetia.

The actions of the government in Ingushetia threaten to further destabilize the republic and the surrounding region, Mr. Lokshina said.

"If the government does not change its policies," she said, "then the tensions in the republic will grow."

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