Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

The Russian Federation's human rights record worsened significantly in 1995. Russian forces prosecuted a brutal war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya with total disregard for humanitarian law, causing thousands of needless civilian casualties. The Russian government also initiated a backlash against human rights in legislation and in government institutions, and made no noticeable attempt to curb police brutality, stop state-sponsored gender and racial discrimination, end abuse in the army, or improve appalling prison conditions.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered 40,000 troops to Chechnya on December 11, 1994, to stop that republic's bid for independence. A December 17, 1994, government statement promised that "force [in Chechnya] will be employed with due consideration of the principle of humanity." But within one week Russian forces began bombing Grozny, Chechnya's capital, in a campaign unparalleled in the area since World War II for its scope and destructiveness, followed by months of indiscriminate and targeted fire against civilians. Russian Human Rights Commissioner Sergei Kovalyev, who remained in Grozny through much of the bombing, bore personal witness to the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, orphanages and other civilian structures. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling killed civilians and destroyed civilian property not only in Grozny but also in other regions in Chechnya, especially in the southern mountain areas.

Russian forces attacked civilians many times throughout the war. For example, on December 17,1994, Russian troops fired on a column of refugees fleeing toward Ingushetiya, killing at least nine. The most notorious civilian massacre took place on April 7-8 in Samashki. According to a report by the independent Russian watchdog group Memorial Human Rights Center, Ministry of Internal Affairs divisions killed 103 civilians during the operation, including fifteen women and children; and the majority of men killed were summarily executed during house-to-house searches.

In the early months of the war, Russian forces arbitrarily and illegally detained and systematically beat, tortured and humiliated Chechen men suspected of being rebel fighters. Conditions in these detention centers, known as "filtration camps," were inhuman; methods of torture used to force confessions included repeated beatings with fists and rifle butts, electric shock, and attacks by dogs. According to Memorial, most of the 500 men detained were later released for lack of evidence against them.

Russian forces also repeatedly blocked or otherwise delayed the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians, particularly in the early stages of the war, and on at least one occasion fired on a clearly marked Médecins Sans Frontières vehicle.

Chechen forces admitted to the summary execution of captured Russian pilots throughout the war, and of at least eight Russian military detainees. Chechen forces also used civilian structures to store arms, and employed indiscriminate fire. On April 14, they reportedly summarily executed U.S. disaster relief expert Frederick Cuny, his translator, and the two doctors accompanying him. In perhaps the most heinous humanitarian law violation known to have been committed by Chechen forces, on June 14 a Chechen unit led by Shamil Basaev captured more than 1,000 civilians and held them hostage in a hospital in Budyonnovsk, in southern Russia, not far from Chechnya. They killed at least seven civilian hostages, denied them food, water and medicine, and used the civilian hospital as a shield.

OSCE-led negotiations yielded an agreement on July 30 linking Russian troop withdrawal from forward positions to disarmament of Chechen fighters, but neither side achieved significant progress. After the October 6 assassination attempt on Lieutenant General Anatoly Romanov (commander of Russian forces in Chechnya), both sides withdrew from the agreement, and low-level hostilities resumed, including aerial bombardments of villages.

Russian investigatory commissions denied the applicability of humanitarian law to the Chechen conflict altogether; however, military courts sentenced seven Russian servicemen for crimes committed against civilians, and the military prosecutor's office investigated another twenty-five crimes against civilians.

Not only did the government fail to hold commanders responsible for some of the grossest violations of human rights in Russia in the post-Soviet era, but the administration sought to dissolve by decree the Human Rights Commission, headed by Mr. Kovalyev, which documented and publicly condemned these violations, and to replace it with a group of non-specialist civil servants. As of this writing President Yeltsin had not signed the decree.

The Russian Federation's backsliding on its path to democratic reform also took the form of emasculating some government human rights mechanisms and passing legislation that encouraged abuse. On April 21, the Yeltsin administration reorganized the Department for Judicial Reform, a body that since 1992 had promoted desperately needed reform of Russia's criminal justice system. After key figures in the department were pressured to step down, its effectiveness was reduced to nil.

The April 3 passage of the Law on the Federal Security Service (or FSB, formerly the KGB),which permits the FSB to conduct searches without warrants, conduct their own investigations, arrest suspects, and run their own prisons, suspended fundamental civil rights and restored powers that were among the hallmarks of the Soviet era. The Law on Investigative Operations, signed in August, granted undercover agents the right to tap phones, open mail, establish fake organizations, infiltrate organizations, and engage in other secret activities. Their activities are effectively beyond civil control, yet evidence gathered in such operations may be used against an individual in a court of law.

This legislative carte blanche is especially alarming since the FSB increasingly has been involved in human rights violations. The FSB's reported refusal to question the only witness to the January 22 murder of Timofei Grigoriants, son of Sergei Grigoriants, a long-time dissident who monitors the FSB and the KGB, strongly suggests it was involved in the murder. The Viktor Orekhov case also bears the mark of FSB intervention: Orekhov, a former KGB officer who served eight years in a labor camp for assisting dissidents in the 1970s, had participated in seminars on the KGB organized by Sergei Grigoriants. In May, Moscow police found on Orekhov an unregistered pistol, whose firing pin was reportedly broken. Police investigators grossly violated the rules of handling evidence, and when the pistol reached ballistics experts one month after the arrest, the latter ruled it fireable. A Moscow court sentenced Orekhov to three years in a maximum security labor camp, an unusually long term, in a trial prosecuted with blatant due process violations. An appeals court later reduced his sentence to one year.

Unchecked police brutality continued in 1995. A report by the Moscow-based Society for the Social Defense of Prisoners described the hundreds of police abuse claims it received every month and noted that complaints filed against the police are almost always dismissed as groundless. In July, police in Saransk reportedly suffocated a man to death in custody; two police officers were investigated, but no charges were brought against them. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki continues to monitor this case.

Police abuse combined with the growing xenophobic mood in Russia produced a brutal, state-sponsored campaign against dark-skinned people that has been waged since at least 1993. Law enforcement agents in Moscow routinely detained, intimidated, extorted money from and beat people of color, mainly people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, who stood out in this Slavic capital.

Some policemen participated in this campaign simply to extort money or vent racist hostilities. Others acted under anti-crime measures, such as those mentioned above. Still others were enforcing city rules that require people to have a propiska (an obligatory residence permit, which today must be purchased at impossibly high prices). New arrivals must pay for a temporary permit and register with the city authorities, or be subject to fines and deportation. The police regularly detained people of color in mass sweeps at marketplaces and refugee hostels, more brutally and punitively in the wake of domestic unrest, such as the war in Chechnya and the Budyonnovsk hostage crisis, both of which involved dark-skinned people and violence against Russians.

Police in Budyonnovsk not only refused to protect local Chechens from retaliatory violence in the wake of the hostage crisis but actively encouraged them to leave altogether. Local Chechens were given less than twenty-four hours to gather their belongings. The Stavropol regional authorities in southern Russia forced people without propiskas to leave the area within seventy-two hours.

The war in Chechnya produced hundreds of thousands of refugees who, along with other new migrants leaving behind war, discrimination and economic hardship, were clearly unwanted in major Russian cities. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, the Moscow city government issued Ordinance No. 2154, which allowed only those individuals with Moscow propiskas to register as refugees in Moscow, an absurd proposition. The directors of newly privatized Moscow hotels forcefully evicted Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan who had been granted housing there in 1988 and 1990 by the Soviet government. The Russian government offered them no alternative housing.

Despite the 1991 court decision that rendered the propiska regime illegal, the government has made little if any effort to discontinue it in major cities. Under a July 17 order from the Council of Ministers, local authorities may refuse to register an individual for temporary or permanent residence based on a long list of conditions that are vaguely formulated and leave open ample opportunities for arbitrariness and abuse. To obey the letter of the law, anyone wishing to stay in a Russian city for more than ten days must register with authorities, in gross violation of freedom of movement.

A scathing report issued on November 16, 1994 by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has had no noticeable effect on inhumane and life-threatening conditions in Russia's overcrowded pre-trial detention facilities. By far the worst result of this negligence occurred in July at the Novokuznetsk facility, where eleven people died and dozens of others required hospital treatment for oxygen deprivation. Two people died in a labor colony (where individuals are mainly sent after conviction) in Perm, also due to oxygen deprivation.

The Moscow Center for Prison Reform and the Society for Prisoners' Social Defense both attributed the increase in overcrowding conditions to the free rein police now have to detain suspects without bringing charges and to the lack of progress in criminal justice reform, which was brought to a halt in 1995 (see above). Suspects spend on average ten months in detention during the investigatory period, and 16 percent of all pre-trial inmates languish for months or even years more awaiting trial. Convicts often remained in these facilities after conviction for lack of transportation to labor colonies or lack of space in the colonies.

The Russian army in 1995 continued to be a dangerous institution for Russian youth. The independent Soldiers' Mothers Committee reported that the rate of death due to abuse recruits remained unchanged at 3,000 for 1995. Instead of seeking an end to hazing, the Ministry of Defense won a six-month increase in service time, which affected retroactively those already serving. Young men now serve two years in the army in conditions so impoverished that, in certain areas of Siberia, recruits were given only animal feed to eat. Although the constitution provides for alternative service, the Duma has not adopted an implementing law, and the Ministry of Defense has begun prosecuting scores of men who refused to serve.

Police utterly failed to protect women from domestic and sexual violence, denying them their right to equal protection under the law. Statistics released in 1995 showed that in 1994 roughly 43 percent of female victims of violent crime suffered at the hands of their domestic partners; the prosecutor's office, however, has no official statistics on the rate of prosecution for domestic violence. A draft law on family violence which was debated in parliament in October_the first of its kind in Russia_marked a positive shift from years of relegating criminal violence to a "family matter."

Russia had a mixed record on press freedoms in 1995. The mass media brought the Chechen war in gory detail to television sets and front pages, and newspapers professing a wide variety of views continued to publish in Russia's largest cities. But provincial governments increasingly hounded the independent press, and the central government waged a campaign against the aptly named Independent Television station ("Nezavisimoe Televidenie" or "NTV"). In December 1994, authorities threatened to close NTV because of its candid reporting, and in July the prosecutor's office pressed charges against NTV journalist Elena Masyuk for withholding information on the whereabouts of a wanted criminal in connection to her interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. The prosecutor's office also opened an investigation of the popular satirical television program "Kukly" (Puppets) for its allegedly slanderous portrayal of government leaders. Both cases were dropped with the sacking of the acting general prosecutor. Law enforcement agencies failed to solve the execution-style March murder of celebrated television journalist Vladislav Listyev, and made little progress in the murder of Natalya Alyakina, a journalist who was shot by a Russian soldier on June 17, 1995, as she passed through a military checkpoint during the hostage siege near Budyennovsk. President Yeltsin, in a positive departure from the backlash outlined above, took a stand in defense of press freedoms in a key speech on September 1, in which he pledged personally to oppose any new draft criminal code that contained the Soviet-era article providing for the suspension of journalists' activities.

In a departure from past practice, when Russian law enforcement agencies passively cooperated with attempts by repressive Central Asian governments to harass and capture their dissidents residing in Russia, the Yeltsin government refused to extradite them: in January 1995, it dropped the investigation of two Turkmen dissidents, Murad Esenov and Khalmurad Soiunov, and in October refused to extradite a third, Shirali Nurmuradov, in all three cases concluding a lack of evidence. However, Moscow police detained Mirzo Salimov, a dissident journalist from Tajikistan, for ten days while it awaited confirmation from Tajik authorities that he was no longer on their "wanted" list (see Tajikistan section).

The Right to Monitor
Throughout January and most of February, Russian Army and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) forces repeatedly blocked efforts by Memorial and Sergei Kovalyev to monitor filtration camps in North Ossetia and Chechnya. (On February 24, the MVD finally granted the group access.) On January 27, the Ministry of Defense refused to allow Sergei Kovalyev to accompany an OSCE delegation to Mozdok, North Ossetia. In another incident, an army officer reportedly threatened to kill Sergei Kovalyev if he did not leave Mozdok. MVD forces forbade humanitarian organizations, human rights monitors and journalists access to Samashki for two days after they had finished their violent search-and-seizure operation. Russian forces twice denied Human Rights Watch/Helsinki access to Mozdok and once refused it access to southern Dagestan. Russian soldiers detained two of our representatives in Grozny and confiscated audio tapes containing interviews with witnesses to human rights abuse.

Disaster relief expert Frederick Cuny was reportedly detained and summarily executed while on a mission for the Open Society Institute to assess food and medicine needs in southern Chechnya. A U.S. citizen and a member of the Human Rights Watch Arms Project Advisory Committee, he was reportedly captured by Chechen forces who may have been acting on Russian intelligence information. It is widely believed that he became a target because of his outspoken views on the abusive conduct of the war.

The Role of the International Community

The United Nations
In January, when the war in Chechnya was at its most brutal, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told journalists he had "no comment" on human rights violations there. However, other U.N. committees and officials compensated throughout the year for this lapse in U.N. leadership. In February, the Commission on Human Rights issued a chairman's statement (a document weaker than a resolution) expressing "deep concern over the disproportionate use of force by the Russian Armed Forces."

Later in the year, the Human Rights Committee considered the first periodic report by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The committee's evaluation rightly chided the report's lack of information on government practice and in particular deplored violations of the right to life in Chechnya, and condemned inhuman conditions in pre-trial detention, arbitrary interference in private life by intelligence services, gender discrimination, and the propiska system.

The special rapporteur on torture's November 1994 report was presented at the 51st session of the Commission on Human Rights, held in February and March 1995. The report described in vivid detail the "infernal conditions" of Moscow pre-trial detention facilities and recommended, among other things, wider use of bail or recognizance and U.N. training for criminal justice agencies.

The European Union
The European Union distinguished itself with early activism on the Chechnya war but allowed its involvement to wane prematurely. On at least twelve occasions throughout the year, E.U. institutions deplored Russia's violations of humanitarian law, including use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force, blocking of humanitarian aid, and, in particular, atrocities committed against civilians in Samashki.

The European Commission gave teeth to its sharp public criticism of Russia's conduct in Chechnya by suspending on January 6 the ratification of the interim trade agreement that underlies the E.U.'s agreement on partnership and cooperation with Russia. The latter's article 1 clearly conditions the agreement on fulfillment of human rights principles. On January 19, the European Parliament approved this decision and called on the commission and the Council of Ministers to refrain from taking any further steps toward final ratification of the agreement until military attacks and gross violations of human rights ceased. From February through April, the Council of Ministers successfully used both trade agreements to pressure Russia to accept a semi-permanent OSCE presence in Chechnya.

In April and June, the E.U.'s Council of Ministers upheld the freeze on the interim accord, but after the Russian-Chechen negotiations began, its position softened. A European summit at Cannes in July recommended unfreezing the interim agreement before the peace agreement had been reached and in total absence of any Russian attempt to seek accountability for humanitarian law abuse. The interim agreement was signed on July 17. As military activities resumed in Chechnya in October the European Parliament again discussed the question of ratification of the partnership and cooperation agreement, but a final decision was not taken.

The establishment in April of the OSCE Assistance Group (AG) in Grozny, following three months of tough negotiations and field work, was a great achievement. The AG's ambitious mandate included facilitating peace talks, investigating human rights violations, and building democratic institutions in Chechnya. In accordance with its human rights mandate, it gathered information on some individual cases of human rights abuse; forwarded cases to the Russian authorities; kept a register of missing persons; on occasion urged Russian commanders to exercise caution with respect to the civilian population; and requested, along with local NGOs, the evacuation of civilians from the Shatoi area before the commencement of military activities.

The AG also proved indispensable in forging the July 30 armistice. Severely understaffed, it was unable to deal with human rights for about half of the mission's first four months. An October 11 Permanent Council statement condemned the renewal of military activities in Grozny and the attack on the OSCE headquarters there.

The Council of Europe
The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly condemned Russia's conduct in the war in Chechnya and voted on February 2 to suspend consideration of Russia's membership application. On September 26, the assembly voted to resume consideration.

U.S. Policy
The Clinton administration responded sluggishly to the slaughter in Chechnya and failed to link Russian conduct with important concessions, such as the May summit with President Yeltsin or support for IMF loans. At the same time, it promoted human rights in Russia at other official meetings through useful democracy-building programs and embassy activities.

Washington's first reaction to Chechnya was to belittle it as an "internal matter" and to make only mild statements urging restraint. Only after public criticism of its position and after its European partners deplored Russian conduct did the Clinton administration show appropriate concern. In February, Defense Secretary William Perry characterized the conflict as "wrongheaded. . .with serious human rights violations," and in April a State Department spokesman condemned the bombings in the south of Chechnya. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, at a March summit with Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, suggested that the Chechnya conflict hampered Russian aspirations to join the Group of Seven nations.

President Clinton declined to use his May summit in Moscow as a forum for protesting abuse in Chechnya. Indeed, he made no significant remarks on the subject at the post-summit press conference, which had featured President Yeltsin's false proclamation that military activities had ended. President Clinton reserved his more critical remarks for a speech delivered at Moscow State University.

To its credit, the Clinton administration actively lobbied for the establishment of the AG, sent $20 million in humanitarian relief, and raised the issue of accountability in the bilateral meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck and his Russian counterpart. Neither the Clinton administration nor European governments, however, sought to link support for the $6.2 billion IMF loan to Russia with significant progress on resolving the Chechen conflict.

Much of the $342.8 million of U.S. assistance to Russia earmarked for 1995 under the Freedom Support Act funded useful programs promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. A cause for concern, however, was its Law Enforcement Assistance program, which organized seminars by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other law enforcement agencies for their Russian counterparts on, among other things, combatting organized crime. Of the forty-eight seminars conducted in Russia and the U.S., not a single one was devoted to maintaining respect for civil rights in fighting crime, although this issue has come strongly to the fore in the past two years.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki made Chechnya a top research priority and focused Chechnya-related advocacy efforts on the OSCE and the European Union. The first international human rights organization to report on Chechnya, we sent three missions there and published four reports in the first five months of the war. We combined publishing reports with increased, on-site public advocacy to engage intergovernmental organizations and Western governments to help end abuse in Chechnya. To this end we traveled twice to Vienna to address the OSCE Permanent Council: in February, to urge the OSCE to establish a semi-permanent mission in Grozny; and in July, to present a briefing paper pressing for criminal accountability and to urge the OSCE to appoint a special envoy to monitor and assist Russia in holding violators accountable. We also prepared a review of the AG mission for the OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues in October. In July we traveled to Geneva to brief the U.N. Human Rights Committee on Chechnya.

In many written démarches, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki used results from fact-finding missions to urge European bodies to reconsider important concessions to Russia in connection with the conduct of the Chechnya war, a strategy that proved successful. These concessions included the European Union's interim trade agreement and Council of Europe membership. Numerous Human Rights Watch/Helsinki letters to the OSCE pressed for the speedy establishment of the AG. Also, a February letter condemned Boutros Boutros-Ghali's failure to speak out on Chechnya, and we also issued a statement at the time of the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting urging it to take a forceful stand on Chechnya.

We repeatedly called on the Clinton administration to condemn violations in Chechnya, and on all world leaders to condemn abuse in Chechnya at the May summit. We released our last report on Chechnya at a press conference in Moscow on the eve of the summit and presented it to members of the OSCE.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki used its Moscow office to monitor and draw public condemnation of state-sponsored discrimination in Russia: against women, ethnic minorities, and people of dissenting opinion. On March 8, International Women's Day, we released Neither Jobs Nor Justice, a Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project report on gender discrimination and violence against women, at a Moscow press conference. Moscow based staff of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki participated in discussions and seminars with local women's organizations on domestic violence and developed a common advocacy strategy with them to use the draft law to raise awareness about domestic violence. We also featured the problem of domestic violence in our written intervention to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The Human Rights Watch/Helsinki office in Moscow closely monitored abuse of individual rights and responded to racial intolerance and threats to free speech. Our report Crime or Simply Punishment?, released in September at a Moscow press conference, documented police attacks on ethnic minorities in Moscow. We also submitted our findings and recommendations to the U.N. Committee reviewing Russia's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in July. A letter to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, released to the press, called on the government to preempt the threat of communal violence in the wake of the Budyennovsk tragedy. In a July 18 letter to the Minister of Justice, we urged the repeal of Articles 74 and 206-2 of the Criminal Code, which punish some types of peaceful speech, including by prison terms. We protested the charges against three journalists who wrote on racist or homosexual themes. The Ministry of Justice wrote that it was unconvinced by the free speech arguments, but the MVD showed sincere interest in at least one of the cases raised.

We urged Mikhail Krasnov, legal advisor to President Yeltsin, to intervene in the Viktor Orekhov case, spoke at a press conference organized in his defense, and attended his appeal. We also wrote Foreign Minister Kozyrev and Internal Affairs Minister Kulikov in October, urging them to expedite the release of Tajik journalist Mirzo Salimov.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page