UN Action on Chechnya Urged: Russian Investigations Not Serious, Says Rights Group

(New York, March 22, 2000) -- Russian government investigations into atrocities committed in Chechnya have shown that they are unlikely to produce any serious result, Human Rights Watch said in letters sent to several European and U.S. foreign ministers today. The letters urged ministers to initiate or sponsor a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, now meeting in Geneva, condemning the abuses committed by Russian forces in Chechnya and setting in motion a "sustained and thorough" U.N. investigation.
Yesterday, the Russian military prosecutor's office said that its investigation had concluded Russian soldiers were not involved in the massacre of more than 60 civilians in the Grozny suburb of Aldi in early February. The massacre was first reported by Human Rights Watch, based on extensive and closely-corroborated testimony from witnesses and survivors of the massacre. In December, the military prosecutor also concluded that "no crime" had taken place in Alkhan-Yurt, where Human Rights Watch had found that at least fourteen civilians were summarily executed.

"The Russians have shown that there's no longer any point in waiting for their investigations," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "The only alternative now is a sustained and thorough investigation by the U.N. Member states should do everything possible to make that investigation happen."

The letter was sent to the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, urging them to initiate a resolution in Geneva.

In recent high-level meetings with the Russian military, the military procuracy, and the Presidential Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch officials were disappointed that none of them seemed to have taken significant steps toward a full investigation. Yuri Dyomin, the military procurator of the Russian Federation, told Mr. Roth on March 10 that he had "never heard of" the massacres in the Staropromyslovskii and Aldi districts of Grozny, where Human Rights Watch found that at least 110 civilians were summarily executed.

Human Rights Watch said it welcomed the appointment of Vladimir Kalamanov as Presidential Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya, but regretted that his mandate is primarily to forward cases to a military procuracy that has shown itself to be so cynically disposed to allegations of abuse. The letter urged that the appointment of Mr. Kalamanov, even with two proposed international experts from the Council of Europe on his staff, should not be viewed as a substitute for measures that the U.N. Commission could take to hold Russia accountable for the worst abuses perpetrated in Chechnya.

"The United States and the European Union have repeatedly condemned the abuses in Chechnya," said Roth. "But no forum is more appropriate for frank talk and tough action than the U.N. Commission in Geneva. This opportunity must not be missed."


March 22, 2000

Foreign Ministry

Dear Minister :

Now that the Fifty-Sixth U.N. Commission on Human Rights has opened we would like to relay to you some urgent concerns about the process of accountability for abuse by Russian forces in the context of the Chechnya conflict, and the challenge this Commission faces in pursuing this goal. Ten days ago, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, had the opportunity to present our concerns to Russian officials in a series of high-level meetings in Moscow with the Russian military, the military procuracy, and the Presidential Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya. These meetings raised serious concerns relevant to this Commission's work.

Our discussions in Moscow revealed that Russian prosecutorial agencies have taken no significant steps to investigate the war crimes--the summary executions in Alkhan-Yurt and in the Staropromyslovskii and Aldi districts of Grozny--that our organization and others have documented. Just today, we have learned, the military procurator closed its inquiry into the more than sixty summary executions at Aldi, concluding that Russian soldiers were not involved. It is unlikely that, short of intense political pressure, any serious investigation will be undertaken at all.

A rigorous investigation would require, at minimum, a commitment to get to the bottom of compelling allegations. Yet, by his own account, Russia's top military procurator Yuri Dyomin, treated the investigation into the summary executions at Alkhan-Yurt in a way that suggests nothing short of bad faith: the inquiry focused on events leading up to and including the seizure of the village, whereas the seventeen summary executions we documented took place after Russian forces had taken control of the village. The inquiry, not surprisingly, was closed.

In our meeting with him on 10 March, Mr. Dyomin claimed he had "never heard of" the 110 summary executions in the Staropromyslovskii and Aldi districts of Grozny, although, upon hearing the details of our investigation, agreed to receive our materials. In response to our allegations of summary executions, rapes, widespread looting, and the like, he maintained that criminality among Russian forces serving in Chechnya was among the lowest in the country because soldiers are "too busy fighting the war." His office had prosecuted just seven soldiers for crimes perpetrated against civilians: two in relation to one murder (he declined to provide any further information); two for "hooliganism," two for theft, and one for improper handling of a weapon.

Mr. Dyomin dismissed our allegations (which are based on independent, exhaustive interviews with hundreds of witnesses) and those of other human rights organizations. He displayed deep mistrust and scorn for accounts provided by refugees, who in fact are often an excellent source of information. Noting that the procuracy was obliged to perform an inquiry on information from all sources, including the media and NGOs, he said that he "regretted the time he wasted" running inquiries "based on disinformation."

While in principle we welcome the appointment of Vladimir Kalamanov as Presidential Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya, it is distressing that his mandate is primarily to forward cases to a military procuracy that is so cynically disposed to allegations of abuse. He can also turn directly to the president, but since Acting President Vladimir Putin has so far chosen not to exert political pressure to ensure accountability, we are not hopeful that he will do so in the future.

We have other reservations about Mr. Kalamanov's efforts. To his credit, he clearly seeks to cooperate in good faith with human rights and other nongovernmental organizations, and sees as goals for his office the restoration of trust between Chechens and federal authorities. Yet it is unlikely that his efforts will contribute to trust or accountability for past abuses because of the reasons stated above, because of his reflexive mistrust of information provided by Chechen refugees, and because of his tendency to dismiss allegations brought to him by NGOs for formalistic reasons.

In our 9 March meeting with Mr. Kalamanov, his comments about Chechen refugees gave us the impression that we were talking about two entirely different groups of people. Whereas Human Rights Watch has chosen its own witnesses, has had great difficulty finding witnesses willing to speak to us, and encountered many people reluctant to speak freely because of their deep fear of retaliation, Mr. Kalamanov claimed that refugee camps were teeming with people with a vested interest in spreading disinformation, and he rejected the notion that anyone would be afraid to come forward. To be sure, our discussion with Mr. Kalamanov was friendly and constructive; his cynicism about the sources of information about abuses, however, was profoundly disturbing.

Mr. Kalamanov took pride at the prospect of having two Council of Europe staff people on his team, and made it quite clear both that they would be answerable only to him and that the political atmosphere would not allow him to further internationalize his staff. Limiting contact between Council of Europe staff and their home institution would hinder and not foster the transparency, to which Mr. Kalamanov committed himself at many points during our conversation. Mr. Kalamanov's hopes to rebuild trust and communication between Chechens and the federal authorities are unlikely to see fruition if his staff is not further internationalized. In our own field experience, we have found that ethnic Chechens are often unwilling to speak in the presence of our ethnic Russian staff. Chechens are likely to deeply mistrust any effort brought uniquely by Russian authorities, even if Mr. Kalamanov's field representative in Znamenskoye, in northern Chechnya are ethnic Chechens. Those who have suffered or were witnesses to the most serious and sensitive kinds of contact abuse--such as summary executions, torture, and rape--would be unlikely to come forward unless they were assured that some other institution stood by the effort and would stand ready to protect their safety.

At the time of our visit, Mr. Kalamanov's office had not yet begun its work in earnest, and we relayed to him that the international community would be looking to it as an indicator of Russia's commitment to accountability. Yet, regrettably, he faces two very serious obstacles at the outset: a procuracy not committed to investigation of war crimes and the lack of a high-level political commitment to accountability. We would therefore urge you not to view the appointment of Mr. Kalamanov, even with international experts on his staff, as a substitute for measures that U.N. Commission member states could take to call Russia to account for the worst abuses perpetrated in this armed conflict. It is now incumbent upon the members of the U.N. Commission to make use of this body's unique role as the international community's largest and most important forum for the promotion of human rights.

Accordingly, we ask you to initiate or sponsor a resolution at the Commission that would condemn the abuses, particularly the summary executions, committed so far, and that would call for a sustained and thorough investigation conducted by a team of U.N. investigators. While Human Rights Watch would welcome any progress made toward deploying the existing mandate rapporteurs to the region, the magnitude of the abuse in this conflict and the complexity of the Russian context argue for a longer-term involvement.

Representatives of Human Rights Watch will be in Geneva during the Commission session and would welcome an opportunity to discuss with your staff our recent findings, as well as these recommendations. In the meantime, should you desire further details of our conversations in Moscow, please contact my deputy, Rachel Denber, who participated in those meetings. She can be reached in our New York office, at 212-216-1266.

We appreciate your continued leadership in efforts to address these serious human rights concerns.


Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative
Human Rights Watch


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