In a landmark ruling today, the European Court of Human Rights held Russia responsible for the “disappearance” and subsequent killing of a Chechen man in February 2000, Human Rights Watch said.
It was the court’s first ruling on a Chechen “disappearance.” The court found that Russia had unlawfully detained 25-year-old Khajimurat Yandiev, was responsible for his presumed killing, had caused suffering to his mother that amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, and had failed to adequately investigate the “disappearance.” In the unanimous decision, which included the Russian judge, the court ordered Russia to pay Yandiev’s mother 35,000 euros in compensation for moral damages.
A “disappearance” takes place when a person is taken into custody by state agents, and the authorities subsequently deny that the victim is in their custody or conceal the victim’s whereabouts or fate in a way that places the victim beyond the protection of the law. Often victims of “disappearances” also suffer torture or, as in Yandiev’s case, are summarily executed.
“This ruling is a victory not just for Yandiev’s family, but for the thousands of victims of enforced disappearances in Chechnya,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Europe’s top human rights court has now made it clear that it will hold Russia accountable for the crime of enforced disappearances and its refusal to conduct adequate investigations into such cases.”
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people have “disappeared” in Chechnya at the hands of Russian or pro-Moscow Chechen troops in the last six-and-a-half years. In 2005, Human Rights Watch characterized the widespread disappearances there as a “crime against humanity” under international law.
Russia has refused to take effective steps to end these abuses and has failed to properly investigate almost all these cases. To date, not a single member of the Russian armed forces has been held accountable for an enforced disappearance. Exasperated by the failure of the domestic legal system, hundreds of relatives of the “disappeared” have filed cases with the European Court of Human Rights through nongovernmental organizations like Stichting Russian Justice Initiative and Memorial.
Russian troops detained Khajimurat Yandiev in early February 2000 in the village of Alkhan-Kala after he fled Grozny with a group of fighters. With television cameras rolling from CNN and several Russian television stations, a top Russian military official, Colonel-General Alexander Baranov, aggressively interrogated Yandiev and finally ordered his execution. Following the interrogation, soldiers led Yandiev away. He has not been seen since.
Yandiev’s mother, Fatima Bazorkina, saw the interrogation of her son on television several days later. In subsequent months, she left no stone unturned in her attempts to learn what had happened to him, filing numerous petitions with officials in Chechnya and Moscow and traveling to numerous detention centers throughout the North Caucasus. But she was unable to find any reliable information about his whereabouts.
In July 2001, almost 18 months after the events, the Russian prosecutor’s office finally opened a criminal investigation into his “disappearance.” However, the investigation made almost no progress until the European Court notified the government that it was considering Yandiev’s case. Colonel-General Baranov was questioned for the first time only in June 2004.
Human Rights Watch first documented the Yandiev case in mid-2000 and has since repeatedly brought the case to the attention of the authorities. In 2001, the organization, together with British barrister Gareth Peirce, helped the applicant bring her case to the European Court of Human Rights. After Human Rights Watch staff members helped establish Stichting Chechnya Justice Initiative (now Stichting Russian Justice Initiative), this organization took over the legal representation of the applicant.
In February 2005, the European Court of Human Rights issued rulings on three cases involving Russian bombardments and extrajudicial executions by Russian troops. In those cases, the court also held that Russia had violated the right to life of the applicants’ relatives and that it had failed to conduct adequate investigations into the incidents. At least 200 other cases concerning enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions, and illegal detentions by Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces in Chechnya are currently pending before the court.