The Russian republic of Chechnya suffered two conflicts in the recent past: 1994-6 and 1999-2000. Fighting, however, continued long after the Russians officially declared the war over in 2000, and civilians bore the brunt of the Russian actions after this period. The Museum's concern in Chechnya stemmed from:
• Past persecution of Chechens as a people
• The demonization of Chechens as a group within Russian society
• The level of violence directed against Chechen civilians by Russian forces
A massive Russian military force entered Chechnya on September 30, 1999, supported by air and artillery. Russian officials claimed the "anti-terrorist operation" responded to an incursion by Chechen militias into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and to apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that they blamed on Chechens. In the ensuing months, Chechnya was devastated, including the almost complete destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Russian artillery and air indiscriminately pounded populated areas. Human rights organizations also documented several massacres of civilians by Russian units.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Chechnya pacified by Spring 2000. But peace remained elusive for Chechen civilians, victims of a continuing war of attrition. They were plagued by abuses committed by Russian forces -- arbitrary arrest, extortion, torture, murder. For years, there were no sustained efforts to rebuild basic social services, such as utilities or education. Chechen fighters also committed abuses against civilians, launching deadly terrorist attacks on Russian sites, but neither on the same systematic basis nor with the same intensity as Russian forces.
Slowly, rebuilding began in Chechnya in 2007 under the pro-Moscow administration of Ramzan Kadyrov, who used strong-arm tactics to control and silence any opponents.
After visiting Chechnya on a fact-finding mission last month, British parliamentarians Jo Swinson and Frank Judd described the human rights situation in Grozny as “sinister and very disturbing.” From 1999 to 2003, Judd was rapporteur to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe on Chechnya. He resigned from this position in 2003 in protest of the Chechen constitution referendum, which he believed was rigged and which ultimately gave Chechnya more autonomy, but stipulated that it remain firmly a part of Russia. Later that year, Judd explained the disappointments that led to his decision during a program at the Museum.
Returning to Chechnya for the first time since then, Judd acknowledged the extensive reconstruction in the formerly war-ruined capital city of Grozny, but he also voiced concerns about ongoing violations of human rights, including extra-judicial detention centres, disappearances, pressure on witnesses, and house burnings. The U.S. State Department’s 2010 annual human rights report reached similar conclusions.
While in Chechnya, Judd met with Tanya Lokshina, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, and her colleague from the Russian human rights group Memorial. In an online piece that also poignantly recalls the passion and commitment of murdered human rights defender Natasha Estemirova, Lokshina describes her discussions with the British MPs:
We tell him about the paralyzing fear, that people are afraid to say anything against the authorities and that on the whole relatives of people kidnapped by law enforcement and security agencies under President Kadyrov’s de facto control no longer even complain because any attempt to seek justice by talking to journalists or appealing to the General Prosecutor can have irreversible consequences for the whole family. Members of alleged militants’ families are persecuted. They are beaten up, their houses burnt down and their sons kidnapped. Collective punishment and extrajudicial executions are promoted on Chechen TV by the highest-ranking officials in the republic.
Lokshina’s vivid description about the strained atmosphere in Chechnya comes just weeks after Freedom House issued a press release criticizing statements made by the ombudsman — the very man responsible for safeguarding human rights — in Chechnya. In an interview published on January 11, 2010, the ombudsman “made a series of highly accusatory statements, alleging that Memorial was using facts about human rights violations to ‘destabilize’ the situation in Chechnya…”
Memorial temporarily suspended its operations in Chechnya after Estemirova’s murder. In the meantime, others have courageously stepped in to help fill the void, working in a mobile group on a shift system. Although it was a lesson that hardly needed emphasis, Estemirova’s murder reminded the world once again that investigating and documenting human rights violations in Chechnya can be deadly dangerous work.
Following Natalya Estemirova’s murder in Grozny last July, the human rights group Memorial accused Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of involvement in her death. Kadyrov subsequently sued Memorial Director Oleg Orlov for libel.
This week, a district court in Moscow awarded the suit to President Kadyrov and ordered Orlov to pay damages, as well as retract his statements. The court rejected arguments that Orlov’s accusations were justified “based on Mr. Kadyrov’s record of human rights violations and his well-known hostile relationship with Ms. Estemirova.” Orlov has promised to appeal the decision, applying to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
Reinforcing Kadyrov’s stronghold grip on the region, the court’s decision has also emboldened the leader to make additional moves against his enemies. He now plans to file a libel suit against the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which had employed Anna Politkovskaya, a human rights activist who was murdered in 2006.
On the morning of July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted near her home in Grozny, Chechnya. As people on a nearby balcony heard her call for help, Estemirova was forced into a car. Her body was found a few hours later near a highway in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Estemirova was a prominent human rights worker who for a decade had documented abuses, kidnappings, and killings for the Russian human rights group Memorial. She was the recipient of the first annual Anna Politkovskaya award, created by Reach All Women in War in honor of the murdered Russian journalist who courageously covered Chechnya for years. The award recognizes women who are defending human rights in zones of war and conflict, often at great personal risk.
Like many who have exposed human rights abuses in Chechnya, Estemirova’s work met threats and condemnations from Chechen authorities. In March 2008, when Estemirova criticized a new law requiring Chechen women to wear head scarves, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov summoned her to a personal meeting and threatened her. Frightened by the experience, Estemirova went abroad for several months. Then she returned.
The tragedy of her death was compounded by the subsequent closure of Memorial’s office in Chechnya. Alexander Cherkasov, Memorial executive committee member, explained, “We have seen that the work Natasha was involved in, the work done by our colleagues in Chechnya — documenting crimes committed by representatives of the authorities — is fatally dangerous. We can’t put them at risk.” The Memorial office in Chechnya, which operated throughout the conflict, provided critical — and oftentimes the only — information about human rights abuses in the Russian republic.
Update: On Sunday, July 27, a suicide bomb killed six people outside a concert hall in Grozny as a crowd gathered for a performance. It was the second bombing in Grozny this month.
Since Estemirova’s death two weeks ago, Memorial has accused President Kadyrov of involvement in her murder; Mr. Kadyrov has announced that he is suing the human rights group for libel.
For more information about Natalya Estemirova, her work, and the situation in Chechnya, please visit:
Not long ago, a Chechen man named Nazir was visited by armed men in camouflage uniforms who gathered boards to start a bonfire alongside his home. Realizing what was about to happen, Nazir pleaded, “Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can’t do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor’s roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor’s house.” Considering this problem, the armed men patiently called a contractor to come separate the roofs before they set fire to Nazir’s house. There was no doubt that they acted with deliberation and impunity.
Nazir’s experience was not unique. A new Human Rights Watch report documents punitive house-burning, where families of insurgents have been intimidated and their homes burned down by local Chechen law enforcement personnel in targeted arson attacks across Chechnya.
In August 2008, the mayor of Grozny, Muslim Khuchiev, announced on television:
In the future, if you relatives commit an act of evil, their evil will be brought upon you, your other family members and even your descendants… The evil perpetrated by your relatives from the woods will come back to your own houses and in the very near future every one [of you] will feel it on your own back.
Written in cooperation with the Russian human rights NGO Memorial, the report details these cases and confirms that they are perpetrated mainly by “law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov.”
The July 2009 report, “What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You”, is available at HRW’s website here.
On April 16, 2009, Russia formally announced an end to its 15 year-long anti-terrorism efforts in the Republic of Chechnya. This decision meant that military restrictions on the region would no longer be in effect and that up to 20,000 Russian soldiers would be withdrawn. The move also significantly increased the power of Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has a militia that is loyal to him alone and has been accused of serious human rights abuses. He has significant personal power in Chechnya, where neither the parliament nor the judicial system operate with independence. His position has also been strengthened by the murders of seven of his rivals in separate assassinations stretching from Vienna to Dubai over the past six months. Mr. Kadyrov denied involvement.
In Chechnya’s capital Grozny, renovation has begun to erase the architectural scars of war and build a new seat of power for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who has professed loyalty to Moscow. Having established a regime based on person allegiances and the ruthlessness of his personal paramilitary guard, Kadyrov has succeeded in increasing stability in the region, although the occurrence of human rights abuses remains high. For instance, President Kadyrov has embraced a program that forces frightened parents of rebels to appear on television and beg their sons to return home. Families of insurgents have been intimidated and their homes burned down in targeted arson attacks that have occurred with impunity in several districts or towns across Chechnya.
According to Human Rights Watch, in 31 separate rulings to date, the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for serious human rights violations in Chechnya, including torture, enforced disappearences, and extrajudicial executions. In mid-September, the court ruled that the Russian Army had indiscriminately shelled the village of Znamenskoye in 1999, killing at least five civilians.
Across the Caucuses, tensions are running high. In Ingushetia, Chechen-style raids, abductions, and disappearances have become commonplace as the Russian government attempts to eliminate a rebel presence there. In August 2008, a war erupted between Russian and Georgia over control of the disputed South Ossetia region in Georgia.
On April 5, 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the assassinated former Chechen Prime Minister Akhmad Kadyrov and head of the most feared militia in Chechnya (known as the Kadyrovtsy) was inaugurated President of Chechnya. While he had been the main power broker in broker in Chechnya since his father’s death in 2004, by Chechen law he could not be president until he turned thirty. Now some four months after his 30th birthday he took the highest office in Chechnya.
The number of disappearances in Chechnya appears to be very slowly decreasing each year, according to the Russian human rights organization Memorial, but remain a significant problem. Additionally, there is systematic torture and ill treatment of detained people in Chechnya. Memorial’s monitoring shows that in the majority of cases, the Kadyrovtsy (the pro-Moscow forces under command of Kadyrov) are responsible for the abuses. There are also many abuses committed by personal of ORB, the Operative Department of the Federal Ministry of Interior. Often, the ORB forces detainees to confess that they are or were members of the resistance, leading to fabricated criminal charges and convictions. The Kadyrovtsy force detainees to join their groups or release them after torture. Civilians throughout Chechnya also face enormous difficulties in securing adequate housing and medical care.
Following the death of Aslan Maskhadov, former head of the Chechen separatist fighters, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev was declared leader of the separtist forces. His leadership lasted barely more than one year. He was killed in a gun battle with Russian and pro-Russian Chechen forces on June 17, 2006. Shortly thereafter, on July 9, 2006, Shamil Basayev, considered the master mind behind Chechen-led terrorist attacks on Russian civilian sites, was also killed in Ingushetia by a bomb, although who triggered the explosion remains a disputed question. The new head of the Chechen separatist armed movement is Doku Umarov.
For Chechen civilians, conditions have not fundamentally changed since the process of Chechenization began. There has been limited reconstruction, largely focused in the center of Grozny. Many civilians still suffer from lack of electricity and running water. Those who returned after internally displaced persons (IDP) camps closed in neighboring Ingushetia (2004) struggle with inadequate housing. Human rights abuses, committed in large degree by armed forces associated with the pro-Moscow leadership, including the Kadyrovtsy, are committed with impunity and arbitrariness. Disappearances, in particular, are so widespread and systematic as to constitute, according the Human Rights Watch, a crime against humanity. In May 2006, the International Helsinki Federation issued a report documenting unofficial places of detention in Chechnya, where it is believed that many of the disappeared are taken and tortured.
In spite of Russian government statements that Chechnya is normalizing, rampant human rights abuses, lack of accountability, and a failure to stabilize or reconstruct Chechnya remain urgent problems for Chechen civilians. As part of a process of Chechenization, placing responsibility for governance and security in Chechen hands, the Russian government conducted a constitutional referendum on March 23, 2003. The results of this election, which was largely decried as fraudulent and unfair, were to affirm Chechnya’s place within the Russian Federation and to set the stage for new presidential elections.
The presidential election occurred in September 2003, with the Russian appointed head of the Chechen government, Akhmad Kadyrov, winning. In the months that followed, the Russian government moved to close tent camps in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where Chechen civilians who had been displaced by the war and violence had been sheltering. By June 2004, the camps had all closed and many Chechens were forced back into Chechnya, where there was inadequate housing and a precarious security situation.
President Kadyrov was assassinated in May 2004. The new president Alu Alkahov installed Kadyrov’s son Ramzan as first deputy prime minister. Ramzan Kadyrov is the head of the pro-government militia, called the Kadyrovsky, who have been accused of committing disappearances and other human rights violations throughout the republic. On March 8, 2005, the former president of Chechnya and leader of the so-called Chechen separatist movement, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed by Russian forces.
During the same period, Chechen rebels have continued fighting in Chechnya. Shamil Basayev, a leader of some rebel fighters, has also claimed responsbility for increasingly devastating terrorist attacks on Russian soil. Among the most dramatic and deadly was the storming of the Dubravka Theater in Moscow on October 23, 2002, where 736 people were taken hostage, approximately 120 died. Also, on September 1, 2004, a group, again associated with Basayev, took over 1,000 people — many of them children on their first day of school — hostage in a school in Beslan. At least 317 hostages died, including over 150 children.
Violence appears to be spreading across the Northern Caucasus. Armed groups have undertaken large-scale organized violence in the neighboring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. It is unclear the extent to which these actions are coordinated with Chechen fighters.
On November 27, 2005, there will be another test of Chechenization, when elections will be held for the Chechen parliament.