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Monday, June 12, 2006

Hundreds of Civilian Murders in Chechnya, No Justice in Russia

Britain's Guardian reports on the inability of civilian murder victims to get justice from the Kremlin, supposedly their own country. Their only alternative is to seek the protection of foreign courts:

Hundreds of civilians have been murdered during Russia's dirty war in Chechnya. Faced with a state deaf to protest against atrocities, the only recourse for victims' relatives is now the European Court of Human Rights. James Meek on their desperate quest to see the killers brought to book

In the middle of the afternoon of February 5 2000, when outside there were the sounds of boots crunching on snow, screams and scattered bursts of gunfire from different directions, Malika Labazanova crouched on the floor of her house at No 20, Third Tsimlyansky Lane, Grozny. A young man in camouflage fatigues held the muzzle of an automatic rifle against her head. Both were citizens of the same country, Russia, but he represented the government, and she did not.

He was young enough to be her son, she noticed; she thought it was quite likely he would kill her. He and his comrades had already shot many of the residents of this area of the city, a district called Novy Aldy, and looted their possessions. Many of them, like Labazanova, who was 50 at the time, were middle-aged or older. She had seen the new corpses. She had handed over the gold earrings her mother bought her when she was 16."I clutched his legs and begged him not to kill me," she told me in Grozny. "He said, 'If I don't kill you, they'll kill me.' And he lifted his gun in the air and shot into the ceiling. I clutched him again and thanked him and he said, 'Shut your mouth, dead one.'"

Labazanova was spared; her brother- and sister-in-law, in an adjoining house, were murdered and the building set on fire. A third relative, a 70-year-old man, was killed outside her door. Labazanova and her husband were forced to bury the bodies of their kin in their own yard.

Labazanova remembered the look of the man in military snow camouflage who led the detachment of Russian government troops through her gate. He was in his late 20s. "His eyes were transparent, like glass. Not living. He said, 'We have orders to kill everyone'."

A report by the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, based on eyewitness accounts, lists 56 victims of the Novy Aldy massacre by name, age and address. The killings took place after armed Chechen resistance to the Russian military had stopped, and Chechen fighters had pulled out of the area.

The casually unpunished atrocity in Novy Aldy, one of a continuing series in Chechnya committed by the Russian authorities in various guises, is liable to provoke a fleeting sense of outrage and powerlessness in the hearts of concerned, liberal west Europeans. Like Guantánamo, Palestine and Tibet, Chechnya has the aura of a faraway place where an insecure, heavily armed government shrugs its shoulders in the face of impotent Europeans bleating about human rights.

Chechnya is different. It is no longer possible for western Europe to shake its head and turn away. A decision made 10 years ago locked Russia, and Chechnya with it, into a firm judicial embrace with the rest of the continent. Since 1996, when Russia joined a structure called the Council of Europe, every Russian citizen, including everyone who lives in Chechnya, has had as much right as the residents of Bournemouth to appeal against official injustice, over the heads of their national governments, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The name of the neat, prosperous French city scarcely any Chechen has ever seen has been echoing in the ruins of Grozny since the Russian shelling ended in 2000. A significant number of Chechens have come to regard Strasbourg as their only hope for justice.

Thirteen of the dead in Novy Aldy were 60 or older. Seven were in their 70s. One was a year-old baby. Six were women, one of them nine months pregnant. Witnesses describe systematic pillaging and looting by Russian troops. The Memorial report, which has been available for more than five years, includes facsimiles of Russian government documents confirming that "mass murder of innocent civilians" by Russian troops took place, and identifying the units responsible - detachments of riot police from the northern cities of Ryazan and St Petersburg. Video film exists of the aftermath of the slaughter. In spite of this weight of evidence, and a slew of other investigations by foreign and Russian journalists and by human rights organisations, no official investigation of the crime has ever been completed; nobody has been arrested; nobody has been charged."If Strasbourg closes its eyes, then there will be no one left to believe," Labazanova said. After a five-year wait, Labazanova heard in December that the European Court would issue a ruling on her complaint, along with those of four other victims, about the Novy Aldy massacre and Russia's failure to investigate it. Dozens more Chechen cases are working their way through the court's process. Last year, the court announced its first verdicts in cases involving six Chechens - for the Chechens, and against the Russian government, in each case.

"People say that Strasbourg doesn't have the same kind of cosy agreement you get between the authorities and judges here in Russia," said Dokka Itslayev, a human rights worker based in the town of Urus-Martan, south of Grozny, who advises potential Strasbourg claimants. "For so long, there wasn't a single organisation you could appeal to which would look at a problem fairly, and when people here understood there was such a mechanism, I think there was a big desire to use it. If, at the beginning, it was difficult to get people to complain, now I can't cope with the number who are coming forward."

Yusup Musayev, 65, had seven relatives and two neighbours slaughtered in the street on the day of the massacre in Novy Aldy. Three days later, he said, he watched as Russian troops, including some of those involved in the killings, turned up in a heavy truck and looted his home of anything of value. His case is one of those, along with Labazanova's, that Strasbourg has agreed to rule on.

I found Musayev in his house on Voronezh Street with his older brother Ibragim, whose son, Suleiman, was killed in the massacre. With so many dwellings destroyed or damaged in Grozny, the Musayevs are lucky to have a big, traditional Chechen house, built around a partly roofed-over courtyard, behind a high, solid metal gate. It's the kind of house designed to be lived in by several large, related families, but it has an empty feel with only the two pensioners rattling around in it.

Over tea and biscuits we talked about the curious situation in which an overworked court in Alsace, France, which has no investigators of its own and seldom calls witnesses to give evidence in person, has become, by default, the last faint chance of establishing responsibility for one of the worst massacres of civilians in Europe since the end of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

"We don't have any particular hopes yet," said Musayev. "Let's see what happens once Strasbourg announces its verdict."

Ibragim Musayev was hungry for hope. "We believe that this court will do something for the sake of justice. Because here it's hopeless," he said. "What court in Russia could you appeal to?" At the same time, he knows that hope is dangerous. "I don't really believe it," he said. "I don't believe the European Court has the power to make Russia go on bended knee."

This is the dilemma of the Russia test, the test of whether there is such a thing as "European values". Declaring the Russian government guilty in Strasbourg offers western Europe both the chance of success and the chance of shame. If, by patient nagging and judicious pressure, west European governments push Russia to accept the verdicts of the European Court and reform its brutal security forces, its noxious jails and corrupt local authorities, it proves that there is a European way of changing undemocratic governments - a way that involves neither turning a blind eye to government-sanctioned torture and murder, nor treating an offending country as a pariah-state-cum-bombing-range. But if Russia fails to respond to Strasbourg by reopening investigations into atrocities, and if western European governments take no action, the idea of "European values" looks as sullied in the grime of Chechnya as America's claim to moral leadership is after Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

The fate of the six Chechen and Ingush claimants who have already won their cases at Strasbourg is not encouraging. The European Court ruled against the Russian government, in harsh and unequivocal terms, in February 2005. Since then, Moscow has paid the claimants the required compensation, a few tens of thousands of euros. But there is little sign that the more important demands of Strasbourg - to make serious efforts to find the guilty, and to ensure similar crimes are not committed again - are being fulfilled.

Magomed Khashiyev was one of the apparent victors in Strasbourg a year ago. He lost two sons, a sister and a brother when Russian troops went on the rampage in Grozny's Staropromislovsky district in 2000, shortly before the Novy Aldy atrocity. Human Rights Watch estimates that 50 civilians were killed by military servicemen in the Staropromislovsky massacre.

Moscow has paid Khashiyev the required €14,000 (£9,600) in compensation, but it has been the hollowest of victories. I visited him at his house in Ingushetia, and found him bitter and anxious. "The European Court helped a bit in a moral sense. But the guilty won't be found. I've lost everything. I've lost hope for justice."

For Khashiyev, the slaughter of his family was part of a grim narrative that would have felled lesser men. He was barely born when Stalin ordered his entire nation - every man, woman and child of the Ingush, as well as the Chechens - deported to Central Asia. When Khashiyev and his family returned after Stalin's death, their land had been given to another, Stalin-friendly ethnic group, and they could not get it back.

Khashiyev moved to Grozny. He fled during the rebellion against Russia in 1994-96; when he returned, he found his house destroyed. He fled again when the Russian army reinvaded in 1999; he returned to find the corpses of his relatives and neighbours lying in the street. He shows me a photograph he took of his son Rizvan as he found him, still in his slippers, his hands slightly raised, as if gently fending off someone trying to wake him, his body fixed fast to the ground by a frame of bloodied ice.

Nor was this the end. During the years Khashiyev was waiting for a decision from Strasbourg, his relatives found that nobody wanted to give them a job. His appeal to the European Court, when the Russian authorities failed to investigate the massacre, marked the family out as politically suspect. Khashiyev's surviving son, Khamzat, could only find work helping build a large new barracks block for Russian troops on the hills above his father's house. One day, Khamzat got into a quarrel with a Russian officer from the same ethnic group that had taken his family's land in the 1940s. He was shot dead.

No European Court verdict was ever going to undo this lifetime of injustice, but there could have been more movement towards an effective investigation into what happened. There is still no sign of one.
"This is the big question now," said Phil Leach, one of the British lawyers working with Russian colleagues from Memorial to help Russian citizens bring cases to Strasbourg. "OK, now we've had these first Chechen judgments. How will the Council of Europe enforce these decisions? How will it react?"

The organisation Leach helps run in London, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, grew out of of an earlier joint effort by British and foreign lawyers to help the victims and perpetrators of another of Europe's vicious, bloody and little-reported wars, the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurds. Those who believe the European Court can help Russia change point to the way Strasbourg judgments steered Turkey towards greater respect for human rights in its attitude towards its Kurdish minority in the 1990s.

Unlike Turkey, however, Russia is not trying to join the European Union. In the absence of such a carrot, the Council of Europe - which includes all EU countries and all other European countries except Belarus - has to rely on whatever sticks its most powerful members, namely Germany, Britain and France, are prepared to wield.

"However much a government delays the judgment of the European Court, I have never known any government refuse to carry it out," said Terry Lewis, the former Labour politician who is the Council of Europe's secretary general. But he admitted that his officials were having trouble getting the Russian government to show exactly how it had implemented the judgments against it.

Russia says that it reopened the investigation into the Khashiyev case in January. Local prosecutors are said to be carrying it out under the direct supervision of Moscow. Yet Russia has not given any details of interrogations of past and present members of the Russian military in relation to Staropromislovsky, and Russian media restrictions make it impossible for the Guardian to interview Chechen prosecutors without a Moscow minder present.

There are faint echoes in Chechnya of the US civil rights movement in the American South in the 1960s, although the European Court of Human Rights is far from the US Supreme Court in its powers and responsibilities, or in the respect it gets from the divided peoples of Europe. The prejudice in northern Russia against the peoples of the Russian north Caucasus, most of them Muslim, is deep. It is legally simple but practically difficult for Chechens or the Ingush to move freely around the rest of Russia; they face constant harassment and abuse. One human rights worker in the region described Chechnya to me as "a ghetto".
"Even in Soviet times, I was 'black' in any part of the Soviet Union, because I'm from the north Caucasus. In America or England, I'm 'white' and here I'm 'black'," said Dokka Itslayev. "If we are citizens of Russia, why should we be treated like this? Why do you want to take a territory if you don't like the people who live there?"

A small number of liberal, educated Russians from the north of the country share the belief of their Chechen counterparts that the Chechen cases being fought in Strasbourg are not just about redress for a group of victims' relatives, but about making Russia as a whole a fairer place. Katya Sokiryanskaya, who is 30 and from St Petersburg, had no ties to the north Caucasus before she moved to Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, to work for Memorial. Sokiryanskaya discovered a different view of what was happening in the autonomous republic from the narrow picture that appears in the Russian and, overwhelmingly, in the foreign news media, where hours of broadcast time and acres of newsprint are given to atrocities by small groups of Chechen separatist terrorists in places such as Beslan. The failure to rebuild Grozny, the continuing torture and disappearance of ordinary Chechens and the lack of accountability for the massacres and looting of the last war generally go unreported.

"On TV, we find out all the details of these terrorist actions, Beslan and so on, but we don't see the other side," said Sokiryanskaya. "Russians have forgotten about the deportations and what happened in the 1990s. They don't even know that this is a destroyed city. In fact, it seems to me our population is in isolation from itself. It's like Chechnya is part of Russia, and it isn't."

Sokiryanskaya sometimes teaches at a college in Grozny. "My students feel completely isolated from world society," she said. "They tell me that I'm the first Russian they've seen without camouflage and weapons."
The potential for Strasbourg and, by extension, the European family of relatively free, democratic nations to fail the victims of the Russian state is high. Khussein Medov, whose 24-year-old brother Adam disappeared on June 15 2004 and has not been seen since, said his personal experience with the Russian authorities leaves him baffled at the level of trust shown by foreigners in Russia.

"What surprises me is how other countries support this country," he said. "There's absolutely no law here. I live here every day and I'm surprised every evening when I come home. I have no idea how it is that foreign businessmen come here and invest money. What are they expecting?"

Adam Medov's wife Zalina was told by a local prosecutor that if he carried out a proper investigation, he would disappear himself. After a series of threats to her life, Zalina fled Russia; the Medov case is now pending in Strasbourg. "The European Court is our last hope that, if he's still alive, he'll be thrown up into the open," Khussein Medov says. "What's going on now is even worse than 1937. People never come home. How did they disappear? Where? It wasn't like this under Stalin. Then, at least, you knew they were taking them to shoot them. Now, we know absolutely nothing."

I last visited Grozny in August 1996, when Chechen separatists had just recaptured the city from its Russian garrison. The city was half-ruined then, after months of indiscriminate Russian air and artillery bombardment which had killed tens of thousands of civilians - many of them elderly ethnic Russians. I had not seen the effect of the second coming of the Russian military, in 1999-2000, which completed the bloody demolition work.

Russia has had six years since then in which to begin rebuilding the city. It is shocking to see how little has been done by a federal government that has earned - and hoarded - tens of billions of bonus dollars from the high price of oil, gas and other raw materials in the wake of China's economic boom. In terms of reconstruction, Grozny today compares unfavourably with Baghdad or even Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city that was devastated by the tsunami in December 2004.

To drive into the city is to pass mile after mile of ruined, Soviet-era apartment blocks and office buildings. Some are bare concrete skeletons. Others are half-demolished, concrete panels hanging from buckled remnants of reinforcing steel, pockmarked and riddled by heavy-calibre machine-gun fire, or punctured with holes a metre across from tank and artillery shells. Entire blocks have vanished.

With the exception of Kabul, no large city in the world has experienced anything similar since the second world war. There is no mains water supply, and electricity is erratic. Traffic moves and markets operate in the low, irregular shadow of the war-eaten skyline. Flashes of drying laundry at windows among the ruins show where families have taken shelter in condemned buildings.

A handful of streets in the centre of the city have been partly and cheaply rebuilt, together with a few administrative buildings - enough for a TV crew to suggest, if it wished, that Grozny is back on its feet. Many of the apparently reconstructed streets still have wooden scaffolding on the freshly painted facades. Behind the facades, you can see daylight shining in from where the roofs used to be.

On my way back from Chechnya, via Moscow, I was sitting on a metro carriage when a man wearing the camouflage and blue beret of the elite Russian airborne troops got on. He had wrapped clingfilm around the stumps of his legs to keep them dry in the slush of the thawing Moscow winter as he propelled himself around on his hands, begging. It was a reminder of how universal is the carelessness of the Russian state towards the welfare of its citizens. Chechnya is only the most extreme of the knots of injustice in Russia which Strasbourg is being called upon to help untie.

A month after my original request for an interview, I manage to reach Pavel Laptev, Russia's representative to the European Court, on a bad phone line between Moscow and London. Laptev referred me to Russia's official, written programme of action in response to the first European Court judgments. The six-page document gives no details about the results of investigations, or how many servicemen have been convicted of crimes in the Chechen conflict. It recommends no changes in the law or Russia's military code. Most of it consists of a summary of the legal training the Russian military is supposed to give its personnel already. The nearest thing it contains to action is to suggest - not order - that military prosecutors subscribe to the European Court's bulletin.

Squeezed behind a wall of computers in Memorial's overheated, scruffy Moscow office, Alexander Cherkasov said it would be wrong to think that Strasbourg's work had no effect on Russia. The real problem, he said, went deeper. "Russia doesn't have a system of adopting the decisions of the European Court into Russian practice. No system at all. It's not like it was in Turkey, when the Kurdish rulings led to big changes in Turkish law, because the Turkish leadership had the political will and wanted to join the European Union. The decisions of Strasbourg certainly have a resonance here, but for the time being, [Strasbourg] is little more than evidence that such a thing as 'Europe' actually exists."

I questioned Laptev on this. "Believe me, there is a programme in Russia for fulfilling the decisions of the European Court," he insisted. "There are too many people who comment and don't know what they're talking about."

Is Russia ready to be guided by the European Court in reforming its legal system? "There is the occasional time when the European Court seems careless in its Russian judgments, but we do recognise them, and we will obey them," said Laptev. "As in Britain, not everybody is happy with the organs of Europe."

While the European Court - which is understaffed, underfunded and has a backlog of 80,000 cases - lumbers along with its judgments, Chechnya does not stand still. Moscow has subcontracted day to day control of the republic to a former separatist fighter, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose militia appear to operate outside any judicial control. They are so confident, Chechens say, that they do not even bother wearing masks. Their practice, denied by Kadyrov and described by witnesses, of kidnapping, torturing and hostage-taking to get their way, has taken fear in Chechnya to a new level and made complaining to Strasbourg still more difficult.
In the north Caucasus, in the alternately dusty and muddy cities under the white mountains, in the alleys of red brick houses with ornamental tin roofs and shady courtyards, where legions of lean boys in black leather jackets and watch caps kick their heels and wait for a cause to find them, Katya Sokiryanskaya preserves her belief that something just may come of it all.

"I believe in the Strasbourg court. I'm among those who believe in it," she says. "I don't know if it will bring Russian culture to European norms, not in the short term. But in the long term, I think, yes, for those who have suffered, there is no other mechanism. I think it's the only way."

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