Human Rights Watch strongly condemned today a new Russian order forbidding male Chechen refugees the ages of ten and sixty from entering or leaving Chechnya.
Today border police began enforcing the order at checkpoints and border crossings.
The new order gives rise to fears that the Russians may undertake mass detention in "filtration camps," where many Chechens were systematically tortured during the 1994-96 Chechen war.
"Chechen males are now effectively trapped in a dangerous war zone," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "It is fundamentally unacceptable to deny civilian males, including children as young as ten, the right to flee from heavy fighting. And it's against international standards."
Following a Chechen counteroffensive and significant Russian military setbacks in early January, General Viktor Kazantsev, Commander for the North Caucasus Group of Forces, reportedly blamed the Russian "mistakes" on "our soft-heartedness." On January 11 he ordered that only children under ten, men over sixty, and girls and women would henceforth be considered refugees. Gen. Kazantsev also ordered males between ten and sixty to be rigorously checked in detention centers for guerilla affiliation.
In the first Chechen war, Russian forces operated three official detention centers in Grozny, Mozdok, and Pyatigorsk, although many smaller camps existed unofficially throughout the region. These centers were known as "filtration camps" because fighters were supposed to be "filtered" out from civilians; they became notorious as centers for systemic torture, beatings and ill-treatment of thousands of Chechen males.
Soldiers at the main Chechen-Ingush border crossing confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they had received orders to turn back all men between the ages of ten and sixty who tried to enter or leave Chechnya, and Chechen civilians told Human Rights Watch that their male family members were stranded as a result. Datu Isigova, a refugee from Grozny, told Human Rights Watch that she was forced to leave her eleven-year-old son, Arbi, and her husband, Suleman, inside Chechnya today due to the new restrictions. Zura Mumayedova, a mother of three from Shatoi who arrived by bus at the Chechen-Ingush border on January 11, told Human Rights Watch researchers that four men she had been traveling with were ordered off the bus by Russian border guards, citing the new restrictions on Chechen males. Held at the border overnight, Mumayedova said that "the Russian soldiers said that no men aged between ten and sixty would be allowed through." She stated that the border guards prevented a fifty-nine-year-old man from crossing the border. She said that two boys, aged twelve and thirteen, made it past the border guards into Ingushetia only by concealing themselves on the bus. Other refugees reported that many other men had been turned back from the border, and that mothers with young children had often decided not to cross the border because they did not want to leave their young children behind.
Chechen men on the Ingushetia side of the border have been separated from their families, unable to cross back into Chechnya. Thirty-six-year-old Vayit Zagayev told Human Rights Watch that he arrived in Ingushetia in late December to get medicine for his bed-ridden mother and to obtain supplies for his family, currently living in Katyr-Iurt. Russian border guards today refused to allow him into Chechnya. Mauli Murtadaliyev, also thirty-six, said that the border guards would not let him escort the body of a deceased female relative back to Chechnya for burial.
At the urging of Russian authorities, in recent weeks as many as 70,000 Chechen refugees have left refugee camps and temporary accommodation in Ingushetia and returned to their homes throughout Chechnya. In early January, renewed and intensive fighting erupted in Alkhan-Kala, Yermolovski, Alkhan-Yurt, Argun, Gudermes and Shali, following Chechen counter attacks. Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which refugees who returned to Russian-declared "safe zones" were caught under shelling and killed in recent days. This escalation of the conflict means that large numbers of Chechen civilians may well be forced to again flee to safety in Ingushetia.
"Russian authorities are obliged under humanitarian law to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and allow civilians to flee to safety," said Ms. Cartner. "By preventing Chechen men and young boys from leaving the republic, the Russian authorities are deliberately violating their international obligations. We call on the Russian government to rescind the order."
Human Rights Watch called on the Russian authorities to allow an international monitoring presence at all check points, border crossings, and detention centers in order to ensure that Chechen civilians do not suffer abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which Chechen civilians, particularly males, were abused at Russian checkpoints, including cases of severe beatings, extortion, sexual harassment of women, and verbal taunting.