Natalia Estemirova

© 2007 Renaud Visage

In December 2002, Russian federal forces broke into the home of Salman Khadzhialiyev in the Chechen village of Samashki. They beat his two sons, Ramzan and Rizvan, and took them away. The brothers' remains were found a few weeks later at a nearby farm; their bodies had been blown up by explosives. Their 70-year-old father collected his sons' remains in shopping bags and delivered them to investigators.

The European Court of Human Rights subsequently concluded that Russian federal forces had detained and killed the brothers. But the murderers have not been brought to justice. Moscow has to date not identified or prosecuted them.

"We wanted one thing to result from us going to the European Court: to have the guilty brought to justice, to have them shown to us, tried, and put in prison," Salman Khadzhialiyev told Human Rights Watch. "But this has not happened."

The chronic culture of violence in the North Caucasus shows few signs of letting up. In July, Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights advocate in Chechnya, was kidnapped and murdered. Less than a month later, two other activists, Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, were killed. A new report from Human Rights Watch offers little comfort to those seeking justice for these and other crimes.

The report examines Russia's response to European Court judgments on cases from Chechnya. The judgments, issued between 2005 and 2009, relate to violations during Russia's military and intelligence operations in Chechnya from 1999 to 2004. In almost all of the 115 rulings, the court concluded that Russia was responsible for extrajudicial executions, torture, and enforced disappearances of suspected militant separatists - and that it had failed to investigate these crimes committed by its servicemen.

In the 33 cases examined for the Human Rights Watch report, Russia has not brought a single perpetrator to justice, even in cases in which those who participated in or commanded the operations that led to violations are named in the European Court judgments.

Parties to the European Convention on Human Rights - Russia is one - are obliged to adhere to European Court of Human Rights rulings. Countries must pay the monetary compensation and legal fees awarded by the court; Russia has done that.

But they are also required to take steps in individual cases to remedy violations, as well as to adopt policy and legal changes to prevent similar violations. On that score, Russia has failed miserably. And Moscow shows little inclination to change course. In several cases, Russian investigative authorities have flatly contested the court's findings of state responsibility for human rights violations in Chechnya.

The Human Rights Watch report calls on Russian authorities to bring ongoing investigations in these cases to meaningful conclusions, including prosecuting perpetrators. It also urges the government to cooperate with future judgments. And it urges Council of Europe member states to make implementation of European Court judgments a priority issue in their bilateral and multilateral dialogues with Russia.

"The families who brought these cases deserve justice for brutal acts against their loved ones," said Jane Buchanan, senior researcher on Russia for Human Rights Watch and an author of the report. "Every crime that goes unpunished sends a clear signal to others that they can get away with equally horrific abuses."

FACT FILE

The European Court of Human Rights has issued 115 judgments to date on cases concerning serious human rights violations in Chechnya.

In nearly every one of the 115 cases, the court has held Russia responsible for enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and for failing to investigate these crimes properly.

In the 33 cases closely examined by Human rights Watch, no perpetrator has been brought to justice.

RECOMMENDATIONS

 

To the Russian Government

  • Bring ongoing investigations to meaningful conclusions by identifying and prosecuting perpetrators of violations found by the European Court.
  • Instruct all prosecutor's offices and investigative directorates that disregarding or rejecting European Court findings violates Russia's obligations under the European Convention and is unacceptable.
  • Provide families with all information as to the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. Ensure that victims and aggrieved parties receive up-to-date and complete information about the investigation.
  • Ensure that officials engaged in or commanding security operations, including counterterrorism operations, are not immune from prosecution for violations of the law.

To Governments of Council of Europe Member States

  • Insist that Russia take the above measures as essential steps toward rectifying past violations and preventing future human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.
  • In dialogues with the Russian authorities, stress the importance of Russia's cooperation with the European Court, including by supplying all materials requested by the court for its review of cases.
  • Insist that the government of Russia sign, with a view to prompt ratification, the new UN Convention against Enforced Disappearances.