Europe’s Top Human Rights Court Issues Ruling in Favor of Chechen Plaintiffs
In a second historic decision on Chechnya this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled today that Russia is responsible for the summary execution of five people in February 2000, Human Rights Watch said.
The ECHR held Russia accountable for the deaths of five members of the Estamirov family, who included a baby and a pregnant woman, failing to carry out an effective and adequate investigation into the circumstances of their deaths, and failing to provide any effective domestic remedy. The court also ordered Russia to pay the victims more than US$250,000 in material and moral damages. Russia has three months to appeal the ruling.
“This is a great victory for the family of the victims,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian and Chechen security forces should take this decision as a warning that the abuse and murder of innocent civilians cannot be met by impunity.”
On February 5, 2000, family members found the bodies of 67-year-old Khasmagomed Estamirov, his son, 37 year-old Khozh-Akhmed Estamirov, the latter’s wife, 29 year-old Toita Estamirova, who was eight months pregnant, her one-year-old son, Khassan Estamirov, and Khasmagomed Estamirov’s cousin, 50 year-old Saidakhmed Masarov. The house and family car had been set ablaze, and the bodies were burnt but still recognizable with visible bullet wounds.
“The Russian government must act swiftly to conduct a meaningful investigation and should accept the judgment of the European Court,” said Holly Cartner.
The killings of the Estamirov family occurred after Russia’s federal forces had taken control of Grozny and had launched sweep operations in the city’s suburbs, including Aldi. At least 60 civilians were summarily executed on February 5 in Aldy and Chernorechie, another suburb.
Soon after finding the bodies, relatives of the Estamirovs urged the Chechnya prosecutor’s office to investigate the murders. It did so only after considerable delay and then repeatedly suspended the investigation. The response of the military prosecutor’s office made it clear to the relatives that the government knew the identity of the unit responsible. However, to date no one has been charged with the crime.
Human Rights Watch documented the killing of the Estamirov family and the Aldy massacre in a June 2000 report, “February 5: A Day of Slaughter in Novye Aldi.”
In the absence of an effective investigation, the Estamirov relatives filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Gareth Peirce of the UK law firm Birnberg Peirce and Stichting Russian Justice Initiative represented the applicants before the court.
The Russian government also failed to properly investigate persons responsible for the massacres of civilians in the Staropromyslovski district of Grozny and the village of Alkhan-Yurt. Hence, many other victims of the sweep operations of the winter of 2000 have brought their cases to the ECHR. To date, the cases of three other families whose relatives were also summarily executed on February 5 2000 are pending before the court.
Great numbers of civilians have been extrajudicially executed in the course of both Chechen wars, and very few perpetrators have been brought to trial for their crimes. The ECHR first found Russia guilty of serious human rights violations in Chechnya in February 2005, ruling that Russia had used disproportionate force in its military operations, indiscriminately targeted civilians, and failed to adequately investigate civilian deaths.