Killing the will for justice
By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
As a human rights worker of some years' experience I must admit to being sceptical about the recent decision to set up a special unit in Chechnya which will make its priority the search for missing people. Not much is known of the status and structure of the new body. The main questions are whether it will be removed from the stranglehold of the state investigators, whether it will be allowed to work in accordance with Russian criminal law, and, of course, whether it will be given the chance to initiate criminal proceedings in cases relating to offences committed by Russian military personnel. Until now, such cases have been dealt with by the military prosecutor's office, a special body directly subordinate to Russia’s defence ministry with much less freedom of action than a civil prosecutor. Not only in Chechnya, but throughout the whole of the North Caucasus, the problem of missing and abducted persons remains not a structural but a political one.
The Memorial Human Rights Centre recently completed work on another volume which chronicles violence inflicted by federal forces. This book describes the events that took place in the Chechen Republic from October to December 2001. One of the most memorable among the hundreds of cases it presents is the so-called “New Year's mop-up" in the village of Tsotsin-Yurt. Although the Russian authorities tried to present the incident as a fierce clash in which more than forty rebel fighters were killed, Memorial managed to ascertain that the “mop-up” was accompanied by gross human rights violations, including pillage and wanton destruction of civilian property, desecration of a mosque, massive robberies and extortion, together with beatings and torture.
The "mop-up" was led by two generals – Nikolai Bogdanovsky and Vladimir Moltenskoy. The former took part in his role as head of the unit that was specially designed for conducting counter-insurgency operations in towns and villages, and who in his wanderings across Chechnya left a bloody trail behind him from one end of the republic to the other. The latter acted in the rank of commander of all of Russia's forces in Chechnya. The inhabitants of Tsotsin-Yurt did not know Bogdanovsky by sight, but they recognized his immediate superior at once from his television appearances. Moltenskoy was stationed at the headquarters located at one of the territory’s “filtration points”, and could not have been unaware of the beatings and torture that were meted out to the men who were brought there.
Among those taken to the filtration point were Alkhazur Saidselimov, Sheikh Akhmed Magomadov and the three Baysultanov brothers: Akhmed, Khanpasha and Suleiman. In early January 2002, the blown-up remains of Alkhazur Saidselimov were found on the outskirts of the village and identified. The other four men are still unaccounted for. A criminal case relating to their abduction was not opened until early April 2002, and just two months later, in July, it was suspended because of the alleged impossibility of identifying the people who were involved in the crime. Although the Chechen men’s relatives contested this decision several times, the case was put on the "back burner" again, and eventually fell through.
The Russian legal system has co-opted from international law the doctrine of responsibility of a superior officer. The gist of this legislation is that if for some reason the perpetrator cannot be tracked down, the unit commander is answerable for the crime. In the case of Tsotsin-Yurt, Bogdanov and Moltenskoy should thus have been questioned. But this option was not even considered.
Why? The answer is obvious: in the situation that exists in Chechnya, the Russian prosecutors and investigators are an adjunct of the military, and are really employed by the special services. While the military are strictly engaged in their professional task of killing and capturing, the “eyes of the state” play a different role. Instead of monitoring the military operations to see that they are carried out in compliance with the law, their task is the banal concealment of murderers and kidnappers. Of the 7,000 cases of disappearance without trace confirmed by Chechnya’s ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, only one has ever been brought to trial – in the case of Sergey Lapin, a former Russian police officer who served in Grozny, and was convicted for the torture and disappearance of a Chechen student.
Now the question is: will the "special unit" whose creation was announced by Alexander Bastrykin in Grozny yesterday be allowed to investigate cases in accordance with the law, without regard for politics? I have my own thoughts on this much-hyped decision. I may be wrong, but something tells me that this is where the heart of the matter lies.
Let me try to explain. With the help of the human rights organizations, Chechen citizens whose relatives have disappeared after being kidnapped are today at least trying to obtain satisfaction. Knowing that there will be no official investigation, they nevertheless keep up the pressure on the prosecutor’s office, seeking the initiation of criminal proceedings and then, when these are suspended, usually for the umpteenth time, gathering together all the documents and taking them to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Such complaints are nearly always accepted, even though the requirement for "exhaustion of domestic remedies” has not been met. But what is the court’s decision if the Russian investigation has failed to identify the suspects and suspends the case for that reason? In such cases, Strasbourg has only one answer: Russia must pay the plaintiff compensation, and should preferably hold a new investigation.
My feeling is that the new "special unit" is really just one more barrier on the way to Strasbourg. People are interested less in money than in the fate of their missing relatives. They will apply to the newly created body, which, as has been announced, will work directly with them and appear to take a positive stance. In the hope of obtaining their goal, they will go on filing application after application. The weeks and months and years will go by, draining away their will to seek and obtain justice.
(Translation by DM)
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).