The year was dominated by Russia's brutal war in Chechnya and fears of an impending crackdown on civil and political rights. Russian soldiers and police committed war crimes and other serious violations of the rules of human rights and humanitarian law in Chechnya. Following Vladimir Putin's election as Russia's new president in March, the political climate changed as officials' public statements showed increased intolerance to criticism and a general trend toward a new information order, of which the crackdown on the media conglomerate Media Most was the most emphatic. Abuse in the criminal justice system and army continued unabated, prisons remained severely overcrowded, the situation in many orphanages remained desperate, the state continued to be indifferent to cases of domestic violence and rape, and religious freedoms were further eroded. The government once more failed to introduce the structural reforms required to improve human rights observance in these areas.
Vladimir Putin, the acting president following Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation on December 31, 1999, entered the March 26 presidential elections as a clear favorite and won in the first round with just over 50 percent of the vote-but not without widespread election fraud. Putin quickly moved to solidify his power by reigning in powerful regional leaders and attacking the "oligarchs," Russia's very wealthy new economic elite. He created seven administrative regions led by representatives responsible to the president alone and forced legislation through parliament to strip regional leaders of their seats in the Federal Council.
Putin's background as a KGB official sparked fears of an impending crackdown on human rights. Despite numerous public assurances of support for democratic values, Putin's reactions to critical media coverage and some of his actions fuelled these fears. The appointment of former KGB officer Vladimir Cherkesov as Putin's representative for the Northern Russia administrative region was another troubling sign; Cherkesov was known for his participation in persecuting dissidents in Soviet times and more recently in the prosecution of environmentalist Alexander Nikitin.
The war in Chechnya continued throughout the year. After taking Chechnya's capital Grozny in early February, Russian troops exercised nominal control over most of the republic's territory. Rebel forces retreated into the mountains to fight a guerrilla war, staging surprise attackson Russian positions and convoys and murdering Chechens working in the new pro-Russian administration. Both sides showed scant respect for international law, but the far larger force of Russian troops backed by air power and artillery committed the lion's share of violations.
In an attempt to limit casualties among its soldiers, Russia relied heavily on air attacks. Villages and towns were "softened up" by prolonged aerial bombardments and shelling before Russian troops moved in. This strategy led to large numbers of casualties among civilians and destruction of civilian property on a horrific scale. In many of the aerial or artillery attacks Russian officers did not differentiate between military and civilian objects. When targeting military objects, Russian forces frequently used force that was clearly excessive compared to the military gain to be expected.
The city of Grozny, bombed for three straight months, from November 1999 to early February 2000, was essentially treated as one enormous military target. Though the vast majority of civilians had left the city before the assault started, an estimated twenty to forty thousand civilians, many too poor, sick, or infirm to leave, remained. These people were given little thought as the Russian military machine obliterated the city. The only hospital that functioned throughout these months-though heavily damaged-treated 5,600 people (including Chechen fighters) for injuries sustained from the bombing campaign; according to estimates this was only about half the total number of injured. Many thousands of civilians were believed to have died in Grozny alone.
On January 31 and February 1, rebel forces abandoned Grozny. An estimated two thousand Chechen fighters quit the city and stumbled into a minefield that claimed the lives of three field commanders and at least one hundred regular fighters; hundreds more suffered serious injury, including notorious commander Shamil Basaev. Russian artillery and aviation tracked the fighters' flight from Grozny to the mountainous south, destroying the villages through which the fighters passed with total disregard for the civilian population. One of the worst hit villages was Katyr-Yurt. On February 4, up to twenty thousand civilians desperately fled an intense bombardment there that commenced following the arrival of large numbers of fighters in the village. At least two hundred civilians died while many more were injured. Russian soldiers then systematically looted the village and destroyed civilian property. The village of Gekhi-Chu was given similar treatment on February 7. Russian forces summarily executed at least seven people.On March 4, up to a thousand Chechen fighters entered the village of Komsomolskoye, apparently seeking food and shelter. Russian forces surrounded the village and then, as civilians sought to flee, subjected the village to a withering assault, totally flattening it. At least one hundred civilians were unable to leave the village and were believed killed during the shelling. Hundreds of fighters also reportedly died in the attack. Russian forces refused to provide exit routes to civilians fleeing from fighting and attacked convoys of displaced persons on several occasions. Displaced persons recounted numerous tales of perilous escapes under constant fire and shelling along roads that had been declared safe exit routes. On October 29, 1999, Russian planes fired multiple rockets at a convoy of Chechen civilians, including five clearly marked Red Cross vehicles, on the road between Grozny and Nazran, leaving at least fifty dead. The convoy, consisting of hundreds of cars, was travelling from the Ingush border back to Grozny after Russian forces had refused to open the border to Ingushetia. The attack took place in excellent weather conditions and it appeared inconceivable that the pilots were not aware that they were targeting civilians. The Russian military claimed it destroyed two trucks with rebel fighters in the attack.
Russian forces showed scant respect for medical neutrality. Russian bombs partially or fully destroyed many of Chechnya's main health care facilities, including every single hospital in Grozny. Russian forces detained and ill-treated several medical professionals who had treated Chechen fighters. Chechen rebels threatened to kill at least one Chechen doctor for treating wounded Russian soldiers.
After moving into villages and towns left by rebel fighters, Russian forces carried out "mopping up" operations. These operations, meant to check for remaining rebels, frequently turned into rampages during which soldiers and riot police looted and torched homes, detained civilians at random, and raped women. Just three such operations, in Alkhan Yurt, and in the Novye Aldy and Staropromyslovskii districts of Grozny, resulted in the confirmed summary executions of more than 130 civilians. Human Rights Watch received over one hundred more allegations of summary executions, many of which it was unable to verify.
In Alkhan Yurt, Russian soldiers went on a two-week rampage after entering the village on December 1, 1999. After first temporarily expelling hundreds of civilians, soldiers systematically looted and burned the village and killed at least fourteen civilians. In the Staropromyslovskii district of Grozny, Russian soldiers killed at least fifty-one civilians between late December 1999 and early February 2000; some were simply shot, others were first tortured. On February 5, Russian forces summarily executed at least sixty civilians in the Novye Aldy and Chernorechie suburbs of Grozny, including a one-year-old baby and a woman who was eight months pregnant. Soldiers pillaged and deliberately torched numerous houses.
Looting was rampant throughout Chechnya. Soldiers systematically stripped bare civilian homes after taking control of villages. Soldiers took not only valuables, money, and electronic equipment but often also food, mattresses, windows, and even floorboards. Many civilians reported seeing soldiers load looted goods onto trucks that were subsequently driven out of the republic. Soldiers deliberately burned thousands of homes throughout Chechnya.
Russian soldiers were believed to have raped numerous Chechen women. Considering the great cultural stigma attached to rape in Chechnya's predominantly Muslim communities, allegations received by Human Rights Watch were believed to represent no more than a small fraction of the total. There was evidence that Russian servicemen raped three women in Alkhan Yurt and six in Novye Aldy. A woman from the village of Tangi-Chu was raped and murdered by a Russian officer.
Russian forces detained tens of thousands of Chechens, often arbitrarily, on suspicion of belonging to rebel forces or assisting them. Many of these Chechens faced beatings and torture at detention centers throughout Chechnya. Many of those detained were released only after relatives paid a "ransom" to police or prison guards.
Large scale arrests started in January 2000 after Gen. Viktor Kazantsev blamed "groundless trust" in Chechen civilians for setbacks in Russia's military campaign. He stated that "only children up to ten and men over sixty, and women, will henceforth be regarded as refugees." By late May, the Russian Ministry of Interior announced that over ten thousand people had been detained in Chechnya since the beginning of the year. At the time of writing, Russian forces continued to detain large numbers of Chechen civilians.
Large scale torture and ill-treatment took place in Chernokozovo in January and early February. Upon arrival, detainees were forced to run through a gauntlet of guards wielding rubber batons and rifle butts. Thirty-two-year-old Aindi Kovtorashvili, detained on January 11, had a serious shrapnel wound to the head when he arrived at Chernokozovo, but guards made him "run the gauntlet" anyway. He collapsed under the blows and died. Guards brutally beat detainees whenever they were taken out of their overcrowded cells for questioning and sometimesduring interrogations. Several detainees described methods of torture, including injections, electric shock and beatings to the genitals, beatings on the soles of the feet, and rape of both men and women.
As Chernokozovo attracted international attention, the Russian government "cleaned up" the detention center and torture and ill-treatment continued unabated at other locations. Some of the most serious abuses then took place at the so-called internat in Urus-Martan, a former boarding school for girls. Allegations of ill-treatment also came from temporary police precincts throughout the Russian controlled territory of Chechnya.
Many of those who were released from detention were "bought" out by relatives. Extortion demands made upon prisoners' relatives were so common that in many cases it appeared that the detention itself was motivated solely as a money-making enterprise. Ransom varied from 2,000 rubles (approximately U.S. $80) to U.S. $5,000. Extortion was also rampant at hundreds of Russian checkpoints throughout Chechnya.
Those displaced by the conflict faced difficult conditions in refugee camps in Ingushetia and Chechnya itself. The Russian government's efforts to provide the displaced with food, medical care, and shelter were insufficient, leaving the brunt of the burden to humanitarian organizations. On various occasions, the government pressured displaced people to return to Chechnya by depriving them of food rations or simply attempting to drive the train carriages, the temporary homes of some, back into Chechnya.
Chechen rebels also showed little respect for international humanitarian law. They summarily executed at least some captured Russian soldiers and murdered numerous Chechens who worked in the new, pro-Russian administration. Chechen rebels frequently endangered civilians by placing headquarters and garrisons in densely populated areas or by firing at federal positions from such places. On several occasions, rebels reacted violently when villagers asked them to leave in order to spare their villages from bombardments. Chechen criminal groups kidnapped one Russian and one French journalist in October 1999. Both were later released. Unknown Chechens summarily executed Vladimir Yatsina, a Russian photographer, in February after kidnapping him in Ingushetia in the summer of 1999.
The Russian government did not hold those guilty of violations accountable. By September, not a single Russian soldier or police officer had been charged with or detained in connection with the massacres in Alkhan Yurt and in the Staropromyslovskii and Novye Aldy districts of Grozny. In Staropromyslovskii district, prosecutors were investigating only one killing out of the fifty-one that were documented. Officially announced investigations into other incidents lacked credibility. In response to allegations of abuses, President Putin appointed Vladimir Kalamanov as his special representative for human rights in Chechnya in February. The special representative's office provided important services to Chechens but did not significantly contribute to the accountability process.
Chechens in Moscow faced very serious abuses in the aftermath of the bombings of two Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. Federal and local authorities took a series of draconian administrative measures against non-Muscovites as a result of which many children could not go to school while adults had trouble finding work, getting married, or receiving passports. At the same time, Moscow police were given carte blanche to terrorize ethnic Chechens living in the city. Police dragged more than twenty thousand Chechens to police stations, photographing and fingerprinting many of them. According to the Russian human rights organizations Memorial and Civic Assistance, police prosecuted at least fifty Chechens after planting drugs and ammunition in their clothes or their apartments. Moscow courts found most of these Chechens guilty despite overwhelming evidence that the charges were trumped up. Members of other ethnic minorities also faced increased harassment by police.
When Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov spoke of a possible "Chechen connection" following another bombing in Moscow in August 2000, Chechens appeared to be in for a repeat performance. However, the dramatic sinking of a Russian submarine diverted attention from the bombing and police apparently abandoned the crackdown, though not before detaining and seriously beating at least some Chechens.
Moscow authorities used the August explosion to defend Moscow's longstanding propiska, or residency permit, system. Federal prosecutors had earlier ordered Moscow to get rid of the system to bring regional legislation in line with federal laws. At the time of writing, Moscow maintained its propiska system.
Media freedom was another casualty of the Chechnya campaign as Russia's leadership severely limited access to the war zone and became increasingly intolerant to criticism. Most Russian media voluntarily supported the government's campaign. Those which did not often faced sanctions. Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty correspondent, was reporting from Chechnya without official accreditation when he was detained by Russian forces in mid-January and taken to Chernokozovo detention center, where guards beat him several times. In early February, the Russian government announced that Babitsky had been handed over to a group of Chechen rebels, in exchange for captured Russian soldiers. Several weeks later he resurfaced in Dagestan and was immediately arrested for carrying falsified identity papers. He was released in Moscow on February 29. A court hearing was still pending at the time of writing.
Media freedom was also under threat outside the Chechen context. On May 11, heavily armed commandos of the procuracy and federal security service raided the offices of Media Most, a media holding that owns Russia's independent television station NTV, radio Ekho Moskvy, and Segodnia newspaper, forcibly holding dozens of employee in the building a full day. The law enforcement officers eventually confiscated part of Media Most's records. Law enforcement agencies denied a political context but the heavy handedness with which the raid was carried out gave it the appearance of a warning to independent media. On June 13, Vladimir Gusinsky, president of Media Most, was arrested. He was released several days later after being charged with large-scale embezzlement. In late July, these charges were dropped when Gusinsky agreed to transfer control over Media Most to the state-owned gas giant Gazprom.
The clumsy response by officials to the sinking of a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, which resulted in the deaths of 118 sailors, provoked a wave of criticism in the media, directed against President Putin and other state officials. Non-state media pointed out inconsistencies in officials' accounts and questioned President Putin's decision not to interrupt his vacation. Putin responded aggressively, accusing the media of "lying" and "ruining Russia's army and fleet."
No measures were taken to combat rampant police torture or to reform the judicial system. Police continued to torture detainees in order to secure confessions, using methods like beatings, asphyxiation, electric shock, and suspension by the arms or legs, as well as psychological intimidation. Police also gave privileges to certain detainees to pressure others into confessing. Prosecutors used coerced confessions in court, often as the primary evidence of a defendant's guilt. The procuracy failed to investigate torture complaints promptly and adequately and they rarely led to formal criminal investigations. On October 11, the Moscow City Court stripped Sergei Pashin, an outspoken opponent of torture practices and a leading judge, of his status for criticizing a judgment of a colleague and giving out his work telephone number in a radio program.
On September 13, the Presidium of the Supreme Court dismissed the prosecution's appeal against the December 29, 1999, acquittal of environmentalist Alexander Nikitin. With that decision, the criminal case, in which Nikitin was accused of espionage for the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona, finally came to an end as the prosecution had no further appeal options.
Republic of Belarus
Bosnia and Hercegovina
United Kingdom / Northern Ireland
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
BACK TO TOP
Copyright © 2001
Human RIghts Watch