March 20, 2009

In 83 rulings to date, the European Court of Human Rights has held Russia responsible for serious human rights violations in Chechnya, including torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. In nearly every ruling, the court called the Russian government to account for failing to properly investigate these crimes. In numerous cases, it also faulted Russia for failing to provide requested case files, which amounts to serious non-cooperation with the court. 

It has been just over four years since the court issued its first ruling on Chechnya. In these years, the Russian government has done the easy part: it has paid monetary compensation to the victims, as required by the court. But it has not meaningfully implemented the core of the judgments and taken other essential measures that follow from the rulings: it has not taken sufficient steps to ensure effective investigations, hold perpetrators accountable, or prevent similar violations from recurring.

Europe can and should press Russia to fully implement the court's rulings. Full implementation is crucial to prevent abuses from recurring in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia's troubled North Caucasus. It carries perhaps the single most significant potential to produce lasting improvements in the human rights situation in this region. By promoting full implementation of the court rulings, Europe would also ensure the integrity and efficacy of the European Court, the leading mechanism in Europe for ensuring that states uphold human rights commitments, which Russia's noncompliance is jeopardizing.

Moreover, full implementation means real and long-awaited justice. When attempts to achieve justice within the Russian court system fail, victims and their families turn to the European Court as a last recourse.  For the thousands of victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya, the European Court judgments represent their best hope to ever see justice, long denied them in Russia.

Full implementation means not only that Russia must bring perpetrators to justice, but also that it must adopt policy changes to address the underlying causes of the violations, in order to prevent them from recurring. Implementation of these more systemic changes, called "general measures," is supervised by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.  The Committee of Ministers initially identified three key areas of focus in the Chechnya cases: improving the legal and regulatory framework governing the work of the security forces; raising awareness and providing training for members of the security forces; and improving domestic remedies in cases of abuse.[1]  In 2008 the Committee of Ministers added a fourth area of concern, in response to more recent court judgments: improving Russia's cooperation with the European Court (providing the court with documents, case files, etc).[2]  Russia has submitted information detailing steps it has taken to comply with the general measures. The Secretariat of the Committee of Ministers noted approvingly of some of these changes, but was critical of the adequacy and completeness of others.  In particular, it expressed concern that the Russian authorities' efforts to implement the court's judgments are not sufficiently systemic and coordinated.  It invited Russia to submit more detailed information about the steps it has taken to implement the general measures.

 

The challenges ahead

 Russia's near-decade of failure to bring to justice those responsible for the torture, killings, and disappearances of thousands of people in Chechnya indicates the enormity of the task ahead.  Indeed, as the number of judgments relating to Chechnya has grown, the European Court has used increasingly strong language in its rulings against Russia.  For example, in Musayev and Others v. Russia (2007), which involved a massacre of civilians by Russian forces, the court expressed frustration that six years after the "cold-blooded execution of more than 50 civilians" in a village outside of Grozny, "no meaningful result whatsoever" had been achieved in the task of identifying and prosecuting the individuals responsible. In its unanimous decision, the seven-judge panel said that "the astonishing ineffectiveness of the prosecuting authorities in this case could only be qualified as acquiescence in the events."

 

Another challenge is posed by the growing hostility on the part of Russian officials toward scrutiny of Russia's human rights record, and their frequent manipulation of the country's geopolitical importance to Europe to discourage European leaders from engaging on human rights.

Russia's equivocal commitment to the European Court, manifested in its failure to ratify a key mechanism that would help the court expedite the processing of cases, is also a problem. It is the only Council of Europe country that has not ratified the mechanism-Protocol No. 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights-and its continued failure to do so means the court cannot adequately address its backlog of about 97,000 cases, 27  percent of which originate from Russia. As long as Russia refuses to undertake measures to properly investigate and prosecute crimes committed by its forces, the increase in the number of cases from Russia is likely to continue. 

Opportunities and reasons for optimism

At the same time, Russia has shown signs of willingness to cooperate with the European Court.  It has implemented some European Court judgments outside the Chechnya context, and has adopted measures in response to the court's recommendations that have led to improvements in the domestic legal system.  Moreover, as Russia has recently assisted South Ossetians with filing more than 3,300 petitions before the European Court, the Russian government has a vested interest in the court as a mechanism to ensure accountability for alleged abuses. Finally, as noted above, Russia has engaged in a constructive dialogue with the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers about its record on implementing the court's rulings on individual and general measures.

The Committee of Ministers and other Council of Europe institutions have an important role to play in monitoring and ensuring Russia's compliance with European Court judgments.  But their efforts need to be reinforced by member states and the European Union, which should make full implementation of the court's rulings a key element on their agendas with Russia.

The widespread patterns of abuse in Chechnya will not cease until perpetrators are held accountable and fundamental changes are made to the way military and security forces operate. The judgments of the European Court, and the recommendations from the Committee of Ministers, provide useful guidance on how the Russian authorities can improve the human rights situation in Russia. We urge Council of Europe member states to seize the opportunity provided by the European Court judgments to prevail on the Russian government to implement them, and once and for all end widespread abuses in Chechnya.

Case Summaries

As of March 2009, Russia has been held responsible in 60 cases involving forced disappearances, 22 cases involving extra-judicial executions, four cases involving indiscriminate attacks, and four cases of torture, and one case each of death due to negligence and property destruction (some cases involve more than one violation). The court also found in many cases that victims' family members had suffered inhuman treatment as a result of the government's actions or inaction in the face of violations. In every case, the European Court found that Russia had failed to conduct an effective investigation.  The cases described below were adjudicated after the publication of Justice for Chechnya.  Most pertain to the types of violations-torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial execution-that persist in Russia's counterinsurgency campaigns in the North Caucasus today.

Khadisov and Tsechoyev v. Russia (21519/02)

Judgment issued February 5, 2009

In September 2001, Salambek Khadisov and Islam Tsechoyev were arrested by Russian authorities. During their detention, they were beaten, suffocated with plastic bags, strangled with belts, burned by cigarettes, and threatened with execution.  Upon their release, Khadisov and Tsechoyev could hardly walk, and their faces and bodies were bloated and covered with hematomas. For years after their release they suffered severe medical problems. The European Court found that Khadisov and Tsechoyev were "indisputably kept in a permanent state of physical pain and anxiety" to compel them to confess. The court held Russia responsible for the illegal detention and torture.     

Sambiyev and Pokayeva v. Russia (38693/04), and Arzu Akhmadova and Others v. Russia (13670/03)

Judgments issued January 22, 2009 and January 8, 2009

In March 2002, servicemen arrested and later killed Amir Pokayev and nine other villagers during a security operation in the village of Starye Atagi, Chechnya.  Following Amir's murder, his brother, Anzor Sambiyev, fled Chechnya.  When Anzor Sambiyev returned in 2004, military servicemen, who had been regularly enquiring about his whereabouts, detained him.  The following day, Anzor Sambiyev's body was discovered with bullet wounds. The European Court held the Russian authorities responsible for the deaths of the two brothers. 

Umayeva v. Russia (1200/03)

Judgment issued December 14, 2008

On January 23, 2000, Lipatu Umayeva and her family were among a group of about a hundred people, wearing white armbands to identify them as civilians, gathering to flee Grozny. The city had been under heavy bombardment, and Russian forces had warned the population to leave.  As the fleeing group passed a Russian military post, they came under shelling and artillery and sniper fire.  Umayeva received bullet wounds to her right arm, both hips, and left kneecap. As a result of her injuries, she became partially disabled and can walk only with difficulty. The criminal investigation into her case has not yielded any results.  The European Court held Russia responsible for the indiscriminate shelling by federal forces of civilians trying to flee Grozny. 

Akhmadov and Others v. Russia, (21586/02)

Judgment issued November 14, 2008

Amkhad Gekhayev, 15 years old, and Zalina Mezhidova, 23, were driving home from work when military helicopters opened fire on their car.  After one of the helicopters landed, several military servicemen put Gekhaeyev and Mezhidova into the helicopter and blew up the car. Two days later, the military delivered the severely mutilated bodies of Gekhayev and Mezhidova to a military commander's office.  Although the investigation into the killings identified the military servicemen involved in the attack, the investigation was repeatedly suspended and transferred to different investigators, with little progress.  The European Court found the Russian authorities responsible for both deaths.

 

Albekov and Others v. Russia (68216/01)

Judgment issued October 9, 2008

In 2000, a landmine explosion killed Vakhazhi Albekov and Khasayn Minkailov and wounded Nokha Uspanov. Russia claimed that the landmines had been planted by armed gangs, though the authorities were aware of the location of the mines because of previous incidents. The European Court found that the authorities' knowledge of the existence of the landmines was sufficient to give rise to a positive obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court held that the right to life had been violated because of the Russian authorities' "failure to endeavor to locate and deactivate the mines, to mark and seal off the mined area as to prevent anybody from freely entering it, and to provide the villagers with comprehensive warnings concerning the mines laid in the vicinity of their village." 

Gekhayeva and Dugayeva v. Russia (1755/04)

Judgment issued May 29, 2008

On May 16, 2003, about 20 armed Russian servicemen forcibly entered the home of Sulimovna Gekhayeva. They wrapped adhesive tape around her eyes, nose and mouth; after the servicemen left and Sulimovna was freed by her neighbors, she discovered that her daughter, Kurbika Zinabdiyeva, and another female visitor, Aminat Dugayeva, were missing.  An investigation into the kidnappings was suspended without having established the perpetrators.  The European Court found Russia responsible for the kidnapping and presumed deaths of Zinabdiyeva and Dugayeva and noted, "with great concern," that a number of disappearance cases had come before it, suggesting that "the phenomenon of disappearances is well known in the Chechen Republic."

Bitiyeva and X v. Russia (57953/00 and 37392/03)

Judgment issued June 21, 2007

Zura Bitiyeva, a political activist in Chechnya who worked with the Russian NGO Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, lodged a complaint with the European Court concerning the ill-treatment she and her son were subjected to while in detention in early 2000.  In May 2003, after Bitiyeva filed her complaint with the court, Russian-speaking armed men broke into her home, tied up Bitiyeva, her husband, son, and brother, and shot them all at close range.  The criminal investigation, which was repeatedly suspended and reopened, failed to identify the perpetrators, and full autopsies were never conducted.  The European Court found Russia responsible for Bitiyeva's illegal detention, the inhuman and degrading treatment she suffered during detention, and for her subsequent death. 

Musayev and Others v. Russia (57941/00, 58699/00, and 60403/00)

Judgment issued July 26, 2007

On February 5, 2000, Russian forces carried out a large-scale "mop-up" operation in the suburbs of Grozny, killing at least 50 civilians and torching numerous houses. Russian authorities' investigation into the killings, begun only one month later and was fraught with "a series of serious and unexplained delays and failures to act." Despite numerous witness accounts and physical evidence, the investigation achieved no meaningful result. The European Court, using unusually strong language, found that the authorities failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation, and held Russia liable for the death of the applicants' relatives.  Another ruling by the European Court involving this operation was Estamirov and Others v. Russia (60272/00), described in Justice for Chechnya.

 

[1] Violations of the ECHR in the Chechen Republic: Russia's compliance with the European Court's judgments (CM/Inf/DH (2006)32, June 29, 2006), available online at https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?Ref=CM/Inf/DH(2006)32&Language=lanEnglish&Ver=original&Site=CM&BackColorInternet=9999CC&BackColorIntranet=FFBB55&BackColorLogged=FFAC75 [last visited 26 February 2009].

[2] Actions of the security forces in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation: general measures to comply with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (CM/Inf/DH(2008)33, 11 September 2008), available online at https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?Ref=CM/Inf/DH(2008)33&Language=lanEnglish&Site=CM&BackColorInternet=9999CC&BackColorIntranet=FFBB55&BackColorLogged=FFAC75#P537_74289 [last visited 26 February 2009].

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