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Chechen refugees in Georgia - Pankisi Gorge and Akhmeta

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Report by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), jointly with the Caucasian Centre for Human Rights and Conflict Studies (CAUCASIA)
Vienna, Tblisi, January 2003. - On 3-7 November 2002 the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Caucasian Centre for Human Rights and Conflict Studies (CAUCASIA) organized a monitoring and fact-finding mission to eight villages of the Pankisi Gorge and to the regional center, Akhmeta. The information obtained during the visit was updated and summarized in December 2002.

The aim of the mission was to monitor and identify current human rights problems of Chechen refugees in Georgia in the context of broad anti-terrorist operations that Georgia's Interior Ministry and State Security Service are conducting.

The fact-finding mission also examined the situation in the context of ongoing negotiations between the states of Georgia and Russia concerning the forced return of refugees from Chechnya to the Russian Federation.

In the context of the mission, meetings and interviews were held with refugees and victims of human rights abuse, representatives of the Refugee Committee and local Georgian community, local and international NGOs working in the region, media and civil society representatives, Parliamentary Committees, government officials and leaders of opposition groups.

The mission also intended to collect materials for recommendations to the Georgian government and international organizations, as well as for advocacy and lobbying with the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Context

Georgia ratified the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol thereto. The arrival of refugees from Chechnya to Georgia in autumn 1999 was a test for the implementation of the Geneva Convention. UNHCR representatives were satisfied with the way in which Georgia granted asylum to these refugees, in application of the Geneva Convention.

The total number of Chechen refugees in Georgia according to official figures is approximately 6.000, most of whom are living in eight villages of the Pankisi gorge. Nearly all of these refugees live with families of the local Kist population of the gorge, that is ethnic Chechens who have been living in the Pankisi Gorge for 300 years and are Georgian citizens.

Georgia is not able to provide these refugees with appropriate socio-economical conditions, which is explained by the fact that as it already counts 300,000 IDPs from Abkhazia and 70,000 from South Ossetia. The UNHCR and some international NGOs opened field offices in the regional centre Akhmeta, from where they provide the refugees with humanitarian aid and carry out psychosocial programs with the victims of the war in Chechnya.

There are ongoing negotiations between Russia and Georgia on the issue of return of Chechen refugees to the Russian Federation. The refugees protest strongly against any proposal on their return to Russia, as they have no guarantee of security in Chechnya under the Russian military presence. All the refugees whom we interviewed, expressed that they want to return home as soon as Russian military operations are ended in Chechnya, but at the moment they seek refugee status in a third safe country, as they do not feel secure in Georgia.

Within the last few years there have been many cases of kidnapping of local and foreign businessmen in different parts of Georgia. Allegedly, the victims have been kept in the Pankisi Gorge, where ransoms were sought. Also, Pankisi became one of the main sources of drug supply for the rest of Georgia. Georgian authorities claimed that they were not able to have full control of the Pankisi gorge and blamed Chechens for the crimes. At the same time, according to independent Georgian media sources; high ranking Georgian officials from the Ministry of Interior and from the State Security Service have been involved in kidnapping and drug dealing.

There have been tensions between local Georgians and the Kist population of the region. Local Georgians several times blocked the main road to the Pankisi Gorge with demands to Georgian authorities to release kidnapped persons and guarantee security and police protection in the region. Such tension was used by Russian officials and some Georgian authorities to blame Chechens for crimes in order to deport them to Russia.

Russian officials claim that the reason for criminal activities in the Pankisi Gorge is the presence of groups of Chechen guerrilla fighters, who came from Chechnya to Georgia through the Caucasus mountains together with unarmed refugees, and are sheltered by Georgia. With this argument, Russia demanded that Georgia accept the deployment of Russian Special Forces in Georgia in order to carry out military operations against Chechen fighters in the Pankisi Gorge, thus expanding Russian military presence in the South Caucasus.

Georgia has thus far refused to allow Russian military operations on its territory. According to some Georgian sources, Russia purposely allowed armed Chechen groups to move into Georgian territory, even opening corridors to them, in order to justify Russian military intervention in to Georgia.

In the aftermath of 11th September, under the pretext of the international anti-terrorist campaign, there has been increased Russian military incursion into Georgian air space and even bombardment of the populated areas: in the early morning of 23 August 2002, three military aircrafts violated Georgian air space from the Russian side. They flew 60 kilometres into Georgian territory and intensively bombed the highly populated villages of the Pankisi as well as the Ilto Gorge. Three civilians died and seven were seriously injured.

The intrusion into Georgian airspace from Russian territory was confirmed by the OSCE monitoring group, which is monitoring the Russian-Georgian border, but Russian authorities denied the accusation.

As a result of the bombarding, Georgian civilians from the region began to flee in panic, raising the prospect of new waves of IDPs. The day after the bombardment in Pankisi, a meeting of 350 delegates of Chechen refugees took place. Taking into consideration that the presence of Chechens became a pretext for attacks on Georgia, the participants demanded to make it possible for Chechen refugees to leave the Georgian territory for any other country except Russia. They requested the Georgian government and the international community to assist them on that end.

On September 11, President Putin sent a letter to the UN Security Council, the UN Secretary General and the OSCE, informing the world of possible military operations on Georgian territory and confirming orders to the Russian military to start necessary preparations for the attack.

Under the pretext of cleaning up the Pankisi Gorge of alleged Chechen fighters and of preventing Russian military involvement on its territory, the Georgian government moved troops of the Ministry of Interior to the Pankisi Gorge. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence, with support of the US government and US military advisers, began a military training of antiterrorist mobile groups near the Pankisi Gorge. Russian officials declared that the implementation of an antiterrorist campaign in the Pankisi Gorge is only possible with the military participation of Russia.

Concerns

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Caucasian Centre for Human Rights and Conflict Studies (CAUCASIA) are concerned about the human rights violations suffered by Chechen refugees in Georgia, and by the justification of these violations as being necessary for anti-terrorist operations.

We are also concerned about the welfare of the refugees in the Pankisi gorge, and about the restrictions on the freedom of media and civil society activities there. Under the pretext of conducting broad anti-terrorist operations the Georgian security services and the Interior Ministry, upon governmental order have since August 2002 and up to this day strictly closed the Pankisi gorge to observation by civil society representatives and independent media. The local population and the refugees are completely isolated from the outside world, and no information is available about their current situation. This makes it almost impossible for independent groups to monitor the behavior of police forces deployed in Panksi as well as the situation of Chechen refugees there. The new situation has also created a serious problem with the distribution of humanitarian assistance and even a food supply problem: the only food being distributed at this moment, via UNHCR, is far from sufficient.

From the beginning of September 2002, during the so-called anti-terrorist measures conducted jointly by the Georgian Security Forces and the Ministry of Interior, "mopping-up" operations were carried out among Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Gorge. In the course of these operations refugees were intimated and mistreated. A young Chechen disappeared.

On 20 September 2002, 25-year-old Hussein Yusupov was taken from a checkpoint within the Pankisi Gorge to the Anti-Terrorist Center in Tbilisi. He was kept there, without a court decision, for five days. Georgian authorities in effect claim that he was released on 25th September, but since then he has been missing.

Due to the insecurity they suffer in Georgia, refugees from Chechnya demand to go to a safe third country, but not to be returned to Russia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organizations, support this demand.

Recommendations

  • We urge Georgia to refrain from extraditing Chechens to Russia, as there is no guarantee that their rights will be protected there, and as they are at serious risk of being tortured or ill-treated and sentenced to long-term imprisonment following an unfair trial.

  • We urge the Georgian authorities to ensure that independent observers be given access to the Pankisi Gorge. Also humanitarian organizations should again get normal access and be able to resume their previous activities in the Gorge.

  • We strongly support the demand of refugees who, due to the insecurity of their situation in Georgia, ask to go to a safe third country, but not to be returned to Russia, as their security there cannot be guaranteed - even to a minimal extent - given the continuing violence in the region.

  • We request that Georgia refrain from justifying its human rights violations as being necessary for anti-terrorist operations, and that Georgia, as a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, adheres to its obligations and fulfills European human rights standards.
(Vienna, Tbilisi, January 2003)

Appendix: Meetings Conducted during the Mission

During the mission in the eight villages of the Pankisi Gorge and the regional centre, Akhmeta, meetings were held with a large number of refugees, victims of abuse and the following organizations:

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - Akhmeta field office;
  • Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Field office in Akhmeta;
  • Mercy Corp of Georgia;
  • Georgian Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims;
  • Local NGO "Samani";
  • Local NGO "Kakheti";
  • Local NGO TAG (Technical Assistance to Georgia);
  • Chechen Refugee Committee;
  • Community Center of village Duisi - "Irsi" (women group);
  • Council of Kist Elders of the Pankisi Gorge;
  • Doctors of the village Duisi ambulance;
  • Teachers of the village Duisi primary school;
Before going to Akhmeta and Pankisi meetings were held with government officials, leaders of political opposition, representatives of Parliamentary Committees and leaders of opposition, representatives of the Chechen community in Georgia, local and international NGOs, media representatives, international agencies and humanitarian organizations in Tblisi. Among them:
  • Ministry for Emergency Situations;
  • Ministry for Refugees;
  • Ministry of Internal Affaires;
  • Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights;
  • Parliamentary Committee for National Reconciliation;
  • Parliamentary Committee for Defense and National Security;
  • Parliamentary opposition party - XXI century;
  • Opposition party - National Movement;
  • Representative of Chechen minority in Georgia;
  • Chechen Information Centre in Georgia;
  • Chechen-Caucasian Committee in Georgia;
  • OSCE Mission to Georgia;
  • International Red Cross (IRC);
  • Oxfam Georgia;