Background Briefing

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Executive Summary

Enforced disappearances in Chechnya are so widespread and systematic that they constitute crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch urges the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to take urgent measures commensurate with the extreme gravity of the phenomenon. It should adopt a resolution condemning enforced disappearances in Chechnya, urging the Russian government to immediately adopt measures to stop the practice and requiring the government to issue an urgent invitation to the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

The conflict in Chechnya, now in its sixth year, is a dire human rights crisis. The Russian government has gone to great lengths to persuade the international community that the situation is steadily “normalizing,” even as in the past year the conflict has shown no sign of abating. Rather, it has increasingly spread to other areas of the Northern Caucasus. Russia contends that its operations in Chechnya are its contribution to the global campaign against terrorism. But the human rights violations Russian forces have committed there, reinforced by the climate of impunity the government has created, have not only brought untold suffering to hundreds of thousands of civilians but also undermined the goal of fighting terrorism.

Chechen fighters have committed unspeakable acts of terrorism in Chechnya and other parts of Russia. Russia’s federal forces, together with pro-Moscow Chechen forces, have also committed numerous crimes against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention and looting.

But it is their involvement in enforced disappearances that is an enduring feature of the six-year conflict. With between 3,000 and 5,000 “disappeared” since 1999, Russia has the inglorious distinction of being a world leader in enforced disappearances.1 This briefing paper argues that the pattern of enforced disappearances in Chechnya has reached the level of a crime against humanity. It shows that, as part of Russia’s policy of “Chechenization” of the conflict, pro-Moscow Chechen forces have begun to play an increasingly active role in the conflict, gradually replacing federal troops as the main perpetrators of “disappearances” and other human rights violations.2 It reflects forty-three cases of enforced disappearances that occurred in 2004, which Human Rights Watch documented during a two-week research trip to Chechnya in January-February 2005.3 Human Rights Watch has submitted thirty-six of these cases to the Russian government, requesting that it disclose information on the whereabouts or fate of the “disappeared” individuals and hold the perpetrators responsible.4 We have also submitted the cases to the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, asking that they raise these cases with the Russian government. These cases are appended to this briefing paper.

[1] Estimate by the Memorial human rights center, “Chechnya, 2004: Abductions and ‘Disappearances’ of People,” February 7, 2005 [online], (retrieved February 25, 2005).

[2] Most of these forces are led by Vice Prime Minister of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who is responsible for the republic’s law enforcement structures.

[3] In the course of its research, Human Rights Watch conducted more than sixty interviews with witnesses and victims of abuses in Grozny, Gudermes, Urus-Martan, Argun, Samashki, Sernovodsk, Starye Atagi and many other towns and villages in Chechnya

[4] In the remaining cases, witnesses asked Human Rights Watch not to release any information, since the families are still trying to find their “disappeared” relatives though private channels. In addition to the forty-three cases that occurred in Chechnya in 2004, Human Rights Watch documented one “disappearance” that occurred in December 2003, and two 2004 “disappearances” that took place in Ingushetia. These are not included in the appendix.

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