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Human Rights Violations in Russia’s North Caucasus

Statement prepared by Tanya Lokshina, Russia Program Director at Human Rights Watch for the January 28, 2016 meeting of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Esteemed Chairperson, Esteemed Members of the Committee,

Human Rights Watch has been documenting human rights abuses in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus region for close to two decades. In recent years, our work in the region has been largely focused on the situations in Chechnya and Dagestan.

In Dagestan Russian authorities are battling an armed Islamist insurgency. Regrettably, law enforcement and security forces involved in counterinsurgency often do not respect or adhere to the rule of law, and counterinsurgency efforts in Dagestan have been marked by a wide range of serious human rights violations. In June 2015 we published a detailed report, “Invisible War,” that documented some of the violations that took place mostly between 2012 and 2015. The report was based on five fact-finding missions in Dagestan.

Our research findings show in particular that in countering the insurgency, the authorities are casting an excessively wide net and essentially treating all adherents of Salafism, a growing Islamic religious denomination in Dagestan, as criminal suspects without charging them with any specific offence. This marks a big shift away from the approach taken by Magomedsalam Magomedov, appointed by the Kremlin as head of Dagestan in 2010. Magomedov sought to stabilize the republic by fostering a dialogue with moderate Salafi leaders and engaging Salafi communities. He created a special commission to re-integrate some militants into society.

However, in 2013, as the Sochi Olympic Games were approaching and security concerns became pressing, the Kremlin abandoned the “soft power” model in favor of military power and pursued ruthless counterinsurgency methods. President Putin dismissed Magomedov, all efforts to foster ties with and integrate non-militant Salafis were suspended, the reintegration commission was disbanded, and a massive crackdown on Salafi communities was launched. Dick Marty brought these developments to the PACE’s attention in his report, “Legal Remedies for Human Rights Violations in the North Caucasus region.”

Police put Salafis on special watch lists, commonly called “Wahhabi registration” lists. They frequently detain and question those on the list for no specific reason, repeatedly photograph and fingerprint them, and in some cases carry out forced DNA sampling. These actions are discriminatory and infringe on both the right to privacy and on freedom of religion. Police also raided Salafi mosques across Dagestan and conducted numerous abusive special operations using excessive force in detaining suspects and holding suspects incommunicado in undisclosed locations without access to family or lawyers.

During our research in Dagestan in 2013-2015, we spoke with over a dozen individuals on Salafi watch lists and documented numerous cases in which authorities detained suspects, mostly Salafi males, using excessive violence and forcibly disappeared them or held them incommunicado, without access to family or lawyers. In some of those cases, family or lawyers later found the detainees in official custody, many detainees having alleged that they had been tortured. In others cases, the victims remain disappeared and their families still have no information of their fate and whereabouts. We documented eight cases of torture and cruel and degrading treatment where police officials beat detainees severely to compel them to provide confessions, testimony, and, in one case, to pressure a man to provide a DNA sample. Authorities regularly deny detainees access to lawyers of their own choosing.

We have also observed an upsurge in particularly abusive special operations. Human Rights Watch documented particularly problematic counterterrorism operations in two Dagestani mountain villages—Gimry and Vremenny—which started in April 2013 and September 2014 respectively. In Gimry a handful of private homes and businesses were destroyed and property was looted, while much of the population was evacuated for about ten days. Villagers claimed security forces were responsible. During the operation in Vremenny, security forces rounded up hundreds of people for identification checks and questioning, immediately forced the entire male population of the village to leave, and in another two weeks drove out all the remaining women and children. The operation in Vremenny continued for over two months and left the village devastated. Residents of Gimry and Vremenny whose houses were destroyed or severely damaged as a result of these operations have received no compensation from the authorities.

In Dagestan, lawyers who represent Salafi suspects have been increasingly subject to threats and violence. Among them is Murad Magomedov, a lawyer who was severely beaten during a break in court hearings, in February 2015. Magomedov suffered a concussion, multiple hematomas, and had his front teeth knocked out. The authorities did not even question the victim. Journalists in Dagestan who report on abuses against Salafis are also at risk. In 2013, unknown gunmen shot and killed Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, a reporter for Caucasian Knot and the local independent paper Novoe Delo known for his report on counterinsurgency-related abuses and government corruption. The official investigation into the murder has yielded no tangible results.

Law enforcement and security officials have subjected the few human rights defenders who work on counterinsurgency-related abuses to extensive surveillance and harassment. In 2014 authorities repeatedly threatened to close one Dagestani group, and coercively obtained a DNA sample from its director. The group was forced to shut down in 2015. Two human rights defenders who worked closely with the Salafi community suffered sustained threats and pressure from law enforcement and finally chose to suspend their work and leave Dagestan following death threats they received in 2014. A member of the human rights group Pravozaschita, Zarema Bagavutdinova, was sentenced to five years for supposedly encouraging another individual to join the insurgency, following a politically motivated and unfair trial.

In Chechnya, local authorities are viciously and comprehensively cracking down on their critics. Unidentified pro-government thugs attacked and destroyed the office of the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (JMG) twice in seven months, first December 2014 and then in June 2015. Faced with aggressive mobs, the two JMG representatives present in the office during the attack had to escape through the windows. Despite their repeated calls to police, law enforcement officials showed up at the scene only two hours later when the office was already destroyed.

The attacks on the JMG office in Grozny, into which the authorities carried out no effective investigation, were apparently triggered by a complaint the group’s leader had filed with Russia’s investigative authorities regarding the December 2014 public threat by the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to expel relatives of insurgents and burn their homes to the ground.  Following Kadyrov’s threats, security officials under his de-facto control went on a rampage destroying more than a dozen of homes. Apparently in response to those events and the media outcry, President Putin at his end-of-the-year press-conference in December 2014, made a critical remark regarding Kadyrov’s policy in Chechnya, stressing that the Chechen leadership should not be acting outside of the law. However, the Kremlin took no specific steps to rein in the Chechen leader after this unprecedented public criticism by the Russian president, and harassment and persecution of relatives of alleged insurgents continued.

Memorial Human Rights Center, one of the most prominent Russian rights groups, paid a price for speaking up vocally against collective punishment in Chechnya and supporting their JMG colleagues. In mid-January, five men in dark clothing and face masks forced their way into Memorial’s office in Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest city, and pelted the staff with eggs screaming, “This is [for supporting] Kalyapin! [head of JMG]”. Memorial’s leadership chose to shut down the office for security reasons after the attack.

In 2015, Chechen officials carried out a campaign of harassment against local residents who dare voice any criticism of Kadyrov’s policies, forcing them to publicly apologize to Kadyrov on Chechen television and/or posting online videos featuring degrading treatment of those critics.   

The situation of women in Chechnya remains a cause for special concern. The authorities continue with their “female” virtue campaign, including by forcing women to wear headscarves in public places. In May 2015, a middle-aged Chechen police chief wed a 17-year old girl under at least some form of duress in what appeared to be a polygamous marriage, with Kadyrov’s full approval and backing. Russian authorities took no steps to protect the girl despite the fact that Russian law does not allow polygamous marriages, or marriage before 18, and the girl was given little if any meaningful choice in the matter. Russian authorities also failed to intervene when Kadyrov called on Chechen men to keep women in their families “off social networks” in an effort “to prevent negative information from spreading”.

Chechen security officials at a checkpoint threatened a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, Elena Milashina, who travelled to Chechnya to report on the under-aged girl’s marriage, telling Milashina she should better “watch out.” Later in May, Grozny Inform, a media outlet closely linked to Chechnya’s leadership, intoned in an editorial that Milashina could meet the same fate as Anna Politkovskaya, her famous colleague murdered in 2006, and Boris Nemtsov, the Russian political opposition leader murdered in February 2015. Novaya Gazeta reported the threats against Milashina to law enforcement officials and called for a prompt and effective investigation. At this writing, the investigation yielded no tangible results.

Finally, this month, Chechnya has been in the news due to vicious threats made by Kadyrov and other senior Chechen officials against Russian political and human rights activists and independent journalists. Amnesty International and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed deep concern about these threats and urged the Kremlin not to take them lightly. However, the Russian leadership has taken no steps to rein in Chechen officials in this respect – or in respect of their abusive, lawless practices described above.

In conclusion, please allow me to suggest a few steps that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe could carry out with regard to the deeply problematic human rights situation in the North Caucasus region.

  • The Parliamentary Assembly should put the human rights crisis in Dagestan and Chechnya on its agenda with a view to adopting a resolution that:
    • acknowledges the deteriorating situation
    • reiterates the recommendations it made to the Russian Federation in Resolution 1738 (2010).
    • calls on Russia to ensure that human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists can carry out their work unhindered in the North Caucasus, and to bring to justice those responsible for attacks on and killings of human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists in the North Caucasus who were targeted in retaliation for their work.
    • calls on Russia to ensure that the laws and constitution of the Russian Federation are fully upheld in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, and particularly in relation to the rights of women and girls
    • encourages the Human Rights Commissioner to keep the situation of the North Caucasus high among his priorities.
  • The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights should continue its important work monitoring closely developments in the North Caucasus and should continue to request access; the situation in the North Caucasus should remain a priority for the Monitoring Committee’s assessment of Russia.

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