The twenty-seven page report, “Into Harm’s Way,” comes as Sergei Yastrzhembsky, special assistant to the Russian president, is scheduled to visit Washington to give a presentation on Chechnya.Yastrzhembsky serves as the government’s chief spokesperson on Chechnya, and has frequently likened the armed conflict in Chechnya to the global campaign against terrorism.
The report documents continuing humanitarian law violations committed by both Russian and Chechen forces, as well as Russia’s efforts to close tent camps and return people displaced by the conflict to Chechnya.
“Russian officials say they’re contributing to the international campaign against terrorism,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “But the war in Chechnya mostly contributes greatly to human suffering. The international community should think seriously about whether it wants to be associated with this very abusive war.”
The Human Rights Watch report—based on sixty-two interviews done during a December 2002 mission to the region—documents abuses by Russian and Chechen forces since the October hostage crisis in Moscow. It condemns the hostage-taking as a violation of international humanitarian law, and describes other abuses by Chechen forces, including the December bombing of the main government building in Grozny and a series of assassinations of civil servants. It also documents extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances committed by Russian servicemen in Chechnya in the aftermath of the Moscow hostage-taking.
“The situation in Chechnya remains perilous for civilians,” said Andersen. “This is a time for the international community to intensify its scrutiny of the region, and to make sure that civilians aren’t compelled to return there.”
The report documents a pattern of threats and intimidation by Russian migration authorities to compel approximately 20,000 displaced people to leave the tent camps and return to Chechnya. “Russian officials say that returns are voluntary,” said Andersen, “but our research shows that this is not the case.”
Human Rights Watch found that officials have constantly harassed displaced persons by threatening them with arrest on false charges and withdrawal of food allowances. Particularly effective was the threat of cutting of gas and electricity supplies during winter months. With alternative housing nonexistent or uninhabitable, the unrelenting pressure amounted to forcible return and clearly violated Russia’s obligations under international law.
In one case, Russia’s efforts to close the tent camps were successful: the Aki-Yurt camp, which housed some 1,700 displaced Chechens, was forcefully closed in early December 2002. Migration officials dismiss security threats that people continue to face in the conflict zone.
At the same time, the Russian government has persistently tried to curtail outside monitoring of the situation in Chechnya. For several years in a row, it has stopped key United Nations human rights monitors from visiting the region, and on December 31, 2002, it effectively ended the operation of OSCE Assistance Group in Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to continue to press for an extension of the OSCE Assistance Group’s mandate and to urge the Russian government not to compel displaced people to return to Chechnya. It urged the U.S. and the European Union to make this the centerpiece of a resolution at the forthcoming session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which convenes in March.