January 23, 2009

2.6 Russian Allegations against Georgia of Genocide and Other War Crimes

Political Statements and Russian Criminal Investigation

From the very beginning of the conflict, Russian authorities put significant effort into documenting alleged violations by Georgian forces. An investigation is being conducted by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Prosecutor's Office (Sledstvennyi Komitet Prokuratury, or SKP).

During his August 10, 2008 meeting with the head of the SKP, President Dmitry Medvedev stated that "the actions of the Georgian side cannot be called anything other than genocide," and ordered the SKP to document the evidence of crimes committed by Georgian forces in South Ossetia in order to create a "necessary basis for the criminal prosecution of individuals responsible for these crimes."[186] The SKP then opened a criminal investigation under article 357 of the Russian Criminal Code ("genocide"), having already initiated an investigation under article 105 ("premeditated murder of one or more persons").[187] The SKP deployed over 200 investigators and 29 forensic experts to conduct an investigation in South Ossetia. On September 25 the head of the SKP reported that the evidence-gathering phase of the investigation had been completed and that "[t]he investigative work allowed us to come to an unequivocal conclusion that the goal of the aggressors was the total annihilation of the national group of Ossetians residing in South Ossetia."[188]

Human Rights Watch does not have access to the SKP's investigative files and thus cannot assess the evidence gathered and the validity of these allegations. Human Rights Watch's written requests to the Russian government to meet with the prosecutor's office went unanswered.

Russia's Allegations Not Supported by Available Evidence

Information collected by Human Rights Watch suggests that while the actions by the Georgian forces clearly violated international humanitarian law, they did not amount to the crime of genocide.[189] This opinion seemed to be shared by the rapporteurs of the Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), who visited Georgia and Russia at the end of September and prepared a report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). During the hearing, Rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights Christos Pourgourides noted,

The facts do not seem to support the genocide allegations against Georgia: the number of Ossetian (civilian) victims of the Georgian assault ("thousands" according to early numbers cited by the Russian authorities relying on "provisional data") seem to be much exaggerated; … Individual atrocities such as those described in certain Russian media and submissions to the Committee of Ministers would be serious crimes in their own right, but not attempted genocide.[190]

Some statements attributed to SKP representatives also raise serious concerns about the accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation. For example, reporting on the findings of the SKP on August 21, Rossiiskaya Gazeta (the main official Russian newspaper) wrote,

In the village of Tsinagar[i], the aggressors executed all civilians in a church where they tried to find refuge. According to Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, Georgian soldiers were dragging pregnant women out of houses and beating and killing them for delectation of the crowd. One Tskhinvali resident was trying to protect her child from the Georgians, but the baby was shot dead right in her lap.[191]

Human Rights Watch interviewed a resident of Tsinagari who said that no such thing happened in his village.[192] In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the same incident to the village of Dmenisi instead.[193] However, numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in that village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.[194]

Human Rights Watch researchers were told similar hearsay accounts of atrocities allegedly committed by Georgian troops in other villages of South Ossetia, but our follow-up research did not confirm these allegations. For example, in August, right after the end of hostilities, several people told Human Rights Watch that civilians were burned to death in a church in Khetagurovo. When Human Rights Watch visited Khetagurovo, local residents vehemently denied such allegations. A staff member of the South Ossetia Committee for Press and Information told Human Rights Watch that the incident actually happened in Sarabuki.[195] Our researchers immediately traveled to Sarabuki, only to discover that local residents had not even heard that story.[196]

Similarly, hearsay allegations of rape circulated widely in South Ossetia, but no leads provided to Human Rights Watch produced credible results.

Accusations of atrocities and genocide allegedly committed by the Georgian troops were also widely publicized by the Public Commission for Investigating War Crimes in South Ossetia, a group of Russian and South Ossetian public activists working with the prosecutor's office of the de facto South Ossetian authorities.[197] The commission was created on August 12, 2008, and immediately went to Tskhinvali and started interviewing witnesses and collecting other evidence of violations committed by Georgia.

A report published by the commission shortly thereafter contained numerous statements by survivors and witnesses of Georgia's assault against South Ossetia. However, in many cases, especially the ones describing deaths or injuries, the necessary details and analysis were missing that would have allowed determination of whether the victims were civilians or combatants (especially in the cases of male victims), and whether the circumstances of their death suggested violations of the laws of war by Georgian forces.[198]

Human Rights Watch asked the Public Commission for the names of witnesses who could confirm the stories of specific egregious acts by the Georgian forces, including the burning of civilians in a village church (the alleged Khetagurovo/Sarabuki incident mentioned above). Commission representatives promised to provide this information, but at this writing they have not done so.[199]

[186]"SKP RF Opened a Criminal Investigation into the Killings of Russian Citizens in South Ossetia," Kommersant Online, August 14, 2008, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1011523&ThemesID=301 (accessed November 8, 2008).

[187]The Military-Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office opened a separate criminal investigation into the killing of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

[188] Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office of Russian Federation, "Investigative Evidence-Gathering Activities on the Territory of South Ossetia have been completed," September 25, 2008, http://www.sledcomproc.ru/news/762/?phrase_id=1401 (accessed November 8, 2008).

[189]Genocide is defined in international law as acts-such as killings, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group-committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted December 9, 1948, G.A. Res. 260 (III) A, entered into force January 12, 1951.

[190]Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, "The consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia," Opinion by rapporteur Christos Pourgourides, Doc. 11732 rev, October 1, 2008.

[191]Vladimir Bogdanov, "The Investigation Has Established That…," Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 21, 2008, http://www.rg.ru/2008/08/21/sledstvie.html (accessed November 8, 2008). The article alleged another atrocity: "The investigators established that, having captured part of Tskhinvali, Georgian soldiers were committing unthinkable [crimes] there. For example, they annihilated a kindergarten. Witnesses were found who confirmed that these "warriors" raped several little girls." It is unclear what "annihilated" means in this context, and to Human Rights Watch's knowledge, no corroborating evidence of the rape allegations has come to light.

[192]Human Rights Watch interview with "Galina G." (real name withheld), Akhalgori, November 21, 2008.

[193]Facsimile from Ilya Rogachev, deputy permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, to Human Rights Watch regarding conduct of Georgian troops in South Ossetia , September 19, 2008.

[194] Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of Dmenisi, September 6, 2008.

[195] Human Rights Watch conversation with a staff member of the South Ossetia Committee for Press and Information (name withheld), Tskhinvali, September 5, 2008.

[196] Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of Sarabuki, September 6, 2008.

[197] Public Commission for investigation of war crimes in South Ossetia and assistance to civilian population, "Aleksandr Bastrykin: The Goal of the Aggressors was the Total Annihilation of Ossetians as a National Group," September 25, 2008, http://www.osetinfo.ru/comments/59/page/8 (accessed November 8, 2008).

[198] See "South Ossetia: A Chronicle of Assassination," 2008, http://www.osetinfo.ru/book (accessed January 13, 2009).

[199]The Commission representatives mentioned the church incident during two meetings with Human Rights Watch-on November 6, 2008, in New York, and November 11, 2008, in Moscow. At both meetings they said they would provide more information on the incident as well as the names of witnesses in South Ossetia.