January 20, 2000
Rape is a war crime, and these allegations about rape in Chechnya are very serious.
Regan Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Russian soldiers have been raping Chechen women in areas of Russian-controlled Chechnya.Human Rights Watch charged today.

A team of Human Rights Watch investigators in Ingushetia has spoken to a number of Chechen refugees who saw the bodies of victims, or had conversations with women who had been raped.

"Rape is a war crime, and these allegations about rape in Chechnya are very serious," said Regan Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. She stressed that according to international law, any single rape could be a war crime.

According to "Malika" (not her real name), on December 19, 1999, Russian soldiers raped and killed her neighbor, twenty-three-year-old "Fira" (not her real name). They were both residents of the Chechen town of Shali. Malika described Fira as "very beautiful," and five or six months pregnant. She said the soldiers also killed Fira's mother-in- law, "Rozet" (not her real name), aged about sixty, during the same incident.

According to Malika, she and other neighbors heard screams, cries, and gunshots coming from the house before discovering the bodies. Human Rights Watch has the family names of the victims and witnesses, but is withholding them on Malika's request.

Malika participated in the washing of the bodies before burial (a Muslim rite), and described the condition of the pregnant Fira:

On her breasts, there were dark blue bruises. There was a strangely square bruise on her shoulder. Near her liver, there were also dark bruises. On her neck, there were teeth marks, and her lips also had teeth marks, like someone had bitten her. She had a little [bullet] hole on the right side of her head, and a big wound on the left side of her head.

The Chechen villagers who buried Fira's body were not able to conduct a forensic examination of the victim, but the location and nature of her wounds strongly suggested an act of sexual violence.

Rozet, the mother-in-law, had gunshot wounds in her chest.

Human Rights Watch has received similar allegations of rape from the village of Alkhan-Yurt, which was the scene of summary executions, looting, and other serious abuses by Russian soldiers in mid-December (See, Human Rights Watch letter to Prime Minister Putin, December 28, 1999). "Zeinap" (not her real name), a thirty-two-year-old woman from Alkhan-Yurt, provided Human Rights Watch with the names of two women who had told her that they were raped by Russian soldiers in early December. One of the women was twenty-five and married, while the other was an unmarried twenty-year-old woman whom Zeinap knew well. According to Zeinap, relatives were planning to send the younger woman to Kazakhstan after the rape for treatment.

Zeinap said that soldiers were frequently drunk and asked the villagers for vodka and young women, saying, "We have not been with a woman for a long time, we need a woman." She said that it is possible that more cases of rape occurred but that "even if it's true, people will not speak about it."

A second woman from Alkhan-Yurt interviewed independently by Human Rights Watch provided a similar account of cases of rape in Alkhan-Yurt. "Zaman" (not her real name), aged fifty-five, believed that five or six women had been raped, "including one old woman like me. At night at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., the soldiers came into the cellar. Some soldiers would stand guard, aiming their guns at [the people in the cellar] while the others were raping." She said that many people refused to discuss the issue of rape: "A lot of women were raped, but our people won't talk about it--these women have to marry."

Zaman broke out in tears as she described the extreme precautions she and her neighbors had to take to protect their young daughters from rape:

There were five young women with us in the cellar: my three daughters aged twenty-six, twenty, and twelve, and our neighbor's girls, aged eighteen and nineteen. We made a pit outside in the yard near the stables. We put a pipe [for air] in the pit, covered it with earth, and the five girls were staying in that pit. The soldiers used to come by and say, "Where are the young girls, we need three girls for each soldier." So we kept the girls in the pit.

The girls were kept there for several days. A third witness from Alkhan-Yurt, forty-year-old "Sultan" (not his real name), also told Human Rights Watch about a case of rape: "Seven contract soldiers [non-officers who serve in the military on a contractual basis] raped a woman in our village. It is a savagery. Her family lives near the cemetery; there were few people left in that part of the village. They [the soldiers] pulled her husband out in the street, and then raped her. The woman is not young, she is forty-two or forty-three. I know the woman's name, but it is against our traditions to name her."

Reports of rape have emerged despite the strong taboo in Chechen culture against revealing instances of sexual assault. Chechnya's Muslim culture and national traditions strictly regulate relations between men and women, and inappropriate behavior is subject to severe and often violent sanctions. Unmarried women who have been raped are unlikely to be able to get married, and married women who are raped are likely to be divorced by their husbands. These factors make it difficult to document cases or rape and sexual abuse in Chechnya, and make it likely that rapes in Chechnya are under-reported.

"Women who are raped suffer severe consequences within Chechen culture, in addition to the mental and physical trauma of the rape experience itself," said Ms. Ralph. "The very fact that Chechens are talking about cases of rape with outsiders shows how concerned they are about these abuses."

Rape is considered a war crime under Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits in its Article 4 (Fundamental Guarantees), "at any time and any place whatsoever ... outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault." In recent years, The Ad-Hoc International Criminal Tribunals established in the aftermath of the wars in Rwanda (ICTR) and the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have indicted and convicted several persons for rape as a war crime