Chechen Republic of Ichkeria: British Delegation Notes “Progress” and “Climate of Fear”
On February 16-17, a delegation of the British parliament’s committee on human rights visited Chechnya. A member of the delegation, Lord Frank Judd, who was formerly the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, stated that he was impressed by the reconstruction of Grozny, but noted that other aspects of Chechen life are more worrying. Another member of the group, Joanna Swinson, was blunter, saying that Chechnya is marked by a “climate of fear,” and an absence of criticism of the state authorities. Both Lord Judd and Swinson regretted that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov did not find time to meet with them in person. Lord Judd stated that the fact Kadyrov did not meet them indicated that either he was unaware of the problems with human rights violations in Chechnya or he considered them unimportant (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 19).
On the day the delegation arrived in Chechnya, an anonymous Chechen NGO leader warned that they would be unable to shed light on the real situation in the republic. “Nobody will talk about continuing killings and kidnappings of civilians, torture of the arrested and unlawful arrests of people, total control over media, corruption and bribes,” the source said adding, “No one will dare” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 16).
Despite the fact that the visit was tightly controlled and what seemed to be a series of pre-arranged questions, Chechen authorities could not help revealing their distaste for independent human rights activists in the republic. According to Lord Judd, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, the official Chechen human rights ombudsman, told him during a meeting that the Memorial human rights center “benefited” from the death of Natalya Estemirova. Estemirova worked for Memorial as a key human rights investigator on the ground in Chechnya before she was kidnapped and killed on July 15, 2009 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 19).
Lord Judd was an uncompromising critic of the Russian government’s violations of human rights during the second Russo-Chechen war that started in 1999. He co-chaired the joint working group of the Russian State Duma and PACE on Chechnya. Following his visit to Chechnya in 2000 at the peak of the Russian assault on the republic and his subsequent critical report, Russia was deprived of voting rights in PACE for one year. In 2003, Lord Judd resigned from his position because of the disagreement with the Russian government over holding a referendum in Chechnya. In March 2004, the Russian authorities, under some pretext, refused to issue a Russian visa for Lord Judd to visit Moscow.
The Russian press preferred to emphasize the bright side of the picture that the British delegation saw in Chechnya. On February 19, Kommersant quoted Lord Judd as saying: “What we saw in the republic is undoubtedly progress. This positively influenced the human rights sphere as well, including the rights to housing and education.” On February 17, the Rosbalt news agency hailed the positive statements made by members of the British delegation about improvements in Chechnya, interpreting them as a “change of attitudes” in Britain toward the conflict in Chechnya. Germany was also praised for refusing to grant political asylum to a Chechen fighter who was accused of killing two Russian soldiers.
Conflicting reports about explosions in Grozny on the second day of the British delegation’s visit emerged after the delegation left Chechnya. Sources reported on casualties in Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny, but the Chechen police did not confirm this information. Chechen rights activists said that because of the coincidence of this incident with the visit of British parliamentarians, the authorities were worried about political damage and so predictably covered it up. According to sources in the republic, if the victims of the attack were taken to military hospitals, there would be no way of knowing it, since their relatives would also be afraid to talk (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 19).
Meanwhile, human rights violations in the North Caucasus may receive a high-profile international hearing. The Russian representative in the United Nations Human Rights Council, Vladimir Zheglov, objected to the official publication of the Council’s study on secret detention centers that some countries are using in their fight against terrorism. Zheglov called the study “confrontational” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 19). Russia’s use of secret prisons in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more generally, as well as the use of secret prisons by the US and Britain are criticized in the report. The draft paper speaks about “ongoing reports of torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killing and secret detention in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus committed by the military, security services and other state agents,” adding that “the authors of such violations appear to enjoy widespread impunity due to a systematic lack of effective investigation and prosecution.” In particular, the study states that a number of cases in which the victims were tortured with electric shocks and other methods was ever investigated or brought to trial. The authors of the study say that the practice of secret detention and related violations of human rights became more widespread in the North Caucasus in 2008 to 2009 (www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/13session/A-HRC-13-42.doc).
The 47 countries represented in PACE have stated they would like to hear more details about Russian secret detention centers at a special hearing scheduled for March 8. The Memorial human rights center adopted a special statement calling on the UN to make the study of secret detention centers public. Memorial head Oleg Orlov said that instead of denying obvious things, Moscow had better fight the lawlessness taking place on its territory. According to Orlov, while hearing cases involving Chechnya, the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg has in many instances found evidence of secret detention sites in the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 19).