There has been no serious attempt by Russian authorities to bring to justice those accountable for the crimes committed at Alkhan-Yurt. Credible testimony suggests that military officers and top commanders in the region had knowledge of what was transpiring as it was happening and, at best, chose to ignore it. In mid-December, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman visited the devastated village and promised an investigation. The military procuracy79 opened an inquiry into the events at Alkhan Yurt, but later closed it for what is said was lack of evidence that any crime had taken place.
The December 17 Visit of Nikolai Koshman and Malik Saidulayev
On December 17, 1999, Russia's highest ranking representative for Chechnya, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, and Malik Saidulayev, one of the most prominent of pro-Moscow Chechen leaders, traveled to Alkhan-Yurt, Saidulayev's native village, to investigate allegations of serious abuses by Russian forces there. Much of the visit was filmed by a member of Saidulayev's entourage, and shows the outraged reaction of Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman to the abuses committed in Alkhan-Yurt.
Koshman and Saidulayev are seen on the videotape walking around the devastated village, listening to distraught villagers telling them about summary executions, looting, the burning of homes, and other abuses committed by Russian soldiers. As they went through the village, Koshman and Saidulayev discovered several caches of goods looted by Russian soldiers, including a tent stuffed with blankets and carpets and a military truck fully loaded with video players and other electronic goods. At one point, Saidulayev found some of his own dishes among the goods looted by the soldiers, and, pointing them out to Koshman, said: "The dishes are from my house." Repeatedly, the villagers and Saidulayev identified the soldiers responsible for the abuses as the 15th Battalion, part of the Western Group of Forces under the command of Major-General Vladimir Shamanov.
The danger faced by the civilians of Alkhan-Yurt was clearly demonstrated by an incident on the videotape: as Koshman exits a house where he had inspected looted goods, nearby soldiers threaten to shoot him, obviously unaware they are addressing a deputy prime minister. Major-General Vakha Ibragimov, leaving the house after Koshman, yells at the soldiers, telling them, "Do you know who you are talking to? This is not like torturing women!" The soldiers appear intoxicated, and initially refuse to identify themselves to Koshman or Ibragimov, despite direct orders to do so.
Koshman is shown as clearly affected by the evidence of atrocities presented to him in Alkhan-Yurt. "I swear to you, with everything I have [seen], that in the Gudermes region, in the north, I haven't seen anything like this anywhere. If you gather together this village, nothing like this has been done anywhere," he exclaims to the local villagers. When a local villager suggests that the commander should be tried, Koshman quickly agrees: "There is no doubt about that. What I have seen is beyond anything I have seen before." "In the village, with the exception of this street, everything is destroyed," concludes Koshman. Koshman is heard promising the villagers that the prosecutor will come, "today, if not, then tomorrow."80
Establishing the Identity of Those Responsible and Command Responsibility
Russian soldiers in Chechnya frequently take evasive action in order to make it difficult for victims of abuse to identify them at a later date. Soldiers have often removed their insignia and other identifying marks from their uniforms, traveled around in unmarked military vehicles with the license plates covered up or in stolen civilian vehicles, referred to each other by nicknames, and covered their faces with balaclavas, or knit cap that covers the head and neck, in order to make identification difficult. However, there are important clues as to the identity of the perpetrators, or at least their units, which would allow a credible and independent prosecutorial body to bring those responsible to justice. Unfortunately, at present the responsible Russian authorities, particularly the military procurator, have shown no real interest in investigating the abuses in Alkhan-Yurt or bringing those responsible to justice.
As indicated in the testimonies above, witnesses have consistently identified kontraktniki, contract soldiers who work on short-term contracts, as responsible for many of the abuses in Alkhan-Yurt. According to many witnesses, the kontraktniki responsible belonged to the Ministry of Interior troops, rather than regular army troops. 81 In addition, Human Rights Watch has been able to establish that the 15th Battalion, part of the Western Group of Forces under the command of Maj.-Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, was in Alkhan-Yurt during the time these abuses were committed, a conclusion also reached by Russia's representative for Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, as well as by non-Russian journalists.82
The Russian military authorities are clearly aware of precisely what units were present in Alkhan-Yurt during the periods in which looting and atrocities occurred. The units in Alkhan-Yurt were there as part of a coordinated military campaign, and military authorities clearly have access to information about their movements and location, as this is essential for effective operations and planning. The essential information about the composition of units and the identity of the troops present in Alkhan-Yurt is indisputably in the hands of Russian military authorities. The authorities have not released this information, however, and there is no evidence that they have taken steps to bring those responsible for criminal actions to justice.
One of the more troubling questions about the abuses in Alkhan-Yurt is why the killings and looting were allowed to go on for so long. Several sources indicate that because of the heavy losses Russian forces had encountered during the battle for Alkhan-Yurt, the soldiers were "given" the village to do with as they pleased. "Lecha L." (not his real name), a thirty-three-year-old merchant, was able to travel to Alkhan-Yurt on December 11 after paying a hefty bribe to a Federal Security Service (FSB, formerly KGB) agent from Moscow who accompanied him to Alkhan-Yurt. When they arrived in Alkhan-Yurt, Lecha L. and the FSB agent came across a group of soldiers, including a colonel, loading looted goods unto a truck on Demilkhanov Street. A fifteen-minute argument ensued between the FSB agent and the colonel.
According to Lecha L., the FSB agent asked the colonel what he was doing, and the colonel replied, "We were given this village; we're allowed to tear this village apart [in Russian, "nam dali na rastezaniye"]; we took it by storm, we had our way with it for two weeks." The FSB agent allegedly responded, "Who gave you such a right, who gave you the village to do as you please?," and tried to arrest the colonel. The colonel allegedly yelled back, "And who are you? We take the village by storm, and afterwards you talk to me like that?" According to Lecha L., the colonel then turned to the villagers who had gathered, and yelled at them: "You sell petrol to Russian territory and you want an independent state and to buy things with the Russian ruble, feed yourselves with Russian bread! That is not happening! We will destroy you, every last one!"83 The argument ended when other military personnel drove up and took the colonel away.
On December 11, a group of residents from Alkhan-Yurt attempted to meet with Major-General Shamanov, commander of the Western Group of Forces in Chechnya, to raise their concerns about the continuing abuses in Alkhan-Yurt. At the time, Major-General Shamanov was somewhere between Alkhan-Yurt and the neighboring village of Kulary, in close proximity to where Russian troops were carrying out abuses in Alkhan-Yurt. Major-General Shamanov refused to listen to the desperate villagers, and according to one of the women in the group, swore at them and threatened them, saying: "You fucking Chechens, get out of here or I will shoot you right now."84 The villagers pleaded with Major-General Shamanov, telling him about the killings by Russian soldiers in Alkhan-Yurt, but after about ten minutes the commander forced the villagers to leave. The fact that a leading Russian commander was in such close proximity to Russian forces committing abuses and failed to take appropriate action to stop those abuses, let alone listen to the concerns of residents of Alkhan-Yurt about abuses, raises serious questions about Major-General Shamanov's complicity in the abuses committed in Alkhan-Yurt.
The Lack of Accountability of the Russian Authorities
The Russian authorities, including military commanders, military prosecutors, and the political leadership with oversight responsibilities for the military campaign in Chechnya, have consistently failed to seriously investigate allegations of abuse by Russian forces in Chechnya, to bring to justice soldiers responsible for abuses, and to take the necessary steps to end such abuse. Instead, Russian officials have repeatedly issued blanket denials about abuses by their troops in Chechnya, blaming what they describe as a hostile Western press and an anti-Russian Western diplomatic corps for "information terrorism."85 In the face of the overwhelming evidence of abuses committed by Russian troops in Chechnya, the blanket denials offered by Russian officials are untenable.
The response of the Russian authorities to the well-documented abuses in Alkhan-Yurt follows this pattern of blanket denial, although Russia was forced to promise at least some semblance of an investigation in order to stem a rising tide of international criticism after the events in Alkhan-Yurt were publicized. In the end, however, Russianofficials acknowledged that not a single Russian soldier was charged in connection with any of the abuses committed in Alkhan-Yurt.
When the reports about killings in Alkhan-Yurt first surfaced, the Russian military denounced them as "false and deceiving," suggesting they were part of a campaign by Chechen terrorists to unleash an information war with Russia.86 Nikolai Koshman, Russia's chief representative in Chechnya, announced on December 23 that an investigation would take place that would make public its findings within ten days, but denied that killings had taken place, saying "[t]here is no question of any shooting or execution of the inhabitants of Alkhan-Yurt," despite being confronted with exactly that evidence when he visited Alkhan-Yurt on December 17 (see above).87 Immediately after the Koshman video surfaced, Russian television news programs began airing tape allegedly showing heavy fighting by Chechen fighters on the outskirts of Alkhan-Yurt suggesting that the deaths there had been caused by the strong resistance of Chechen fighters. The Russian military at the same time released a statement asserting that the villagers from Alkhan-Yurt had tricked the Russian army into an ambush, that the civilians had died during the course of fighting, and that the use of force had been justified.88 The videotape of Chechen fighters outside Alkhan-Yurt was later established to be a fake and to show a Chechen commander who was killed in the first Chechen war in 1995.89
Major-General Shamanov, commander of the Western Group of Forces, was the commander in charge of the military units in Alkhan-Yurt. He denied flatly that abuses took place in Alkhan-Yurt, and threatened journalists and those who wanted to establish accountability for the abuses committed in Alkhan-Yurt: "Don't you dare touch the soldiers and officers of the Russian army. They are doing a sacred thing today-they are defending Russia. And don't you dare sully the Russian soldier with your dirty hands!"90 Despite his role in presiding over the abuses in Alkhan-Yurt, Major-General Shamanov received Russia's highest honor, the Hero of Russia medal, on December 28, when then president BorisYeltsin described the army's conduct in Chechnya as "faultless."91
Although pro-Moscow Chechen leader Malik Saidulayev claimed that some eighteen soldiers were arrested for their role in the abuses in Alkhan-Yurt, this claim was denied by the office of the military procuracy, which stated that none had been arrested.92 The military procurator later announced that its initial inquiry had found no evidence of "excessive use of force by servicemen," and anonymous sources in the office of the military procurator began suggesting that the village residents "were most probably shot by [Chechen] rebels, who staged this provocation to discredit the federal armed forces."93 On December 31, Chief Military Procurator Yuri Dyomin announced that "there are no grounds to instigate criminal proceedings in connection with the recent events in the Chechen village of Alkhan-Yurt."94 When Dyomin met with Human Rights Watch representatives on March 10, 2000, he stated that the investigation into abuses at Alkhan-Yurt had been closed because of lack of evidence. Yet he made it clear that theevents he investigated ended with the seizure of the village by Russian forces, and attempted to conflate the summary executions wholly unrelated to the seizure of the village with deaths that may have occurred during the battle itself. When Human Rights Watch presented some of the details related to the looting and summary executions, Dyomin retorted, speculating that these were "perpetrated by Chechen terrorists." Dyomin further denied any knowledge of the killings in Staropromyslovski district of Grozny perpetrated by Russian troops.95
The failure of the military procurator to investigate war crimes and other abuses committed in Alkhan-Yurt and elsewhere in Chechnya seriously calls into question the credibility and independence of this office. The military procurator is the agency responsible for investigating and punishing abuses by Russian troops, but has clearly failed to carry out its mandate. Unfortunately, the conduct of the Russian authorities, and particularly the military procurator, mirrors the experience of the first war, when similar abuses were committed, yet the perpetrators were never identified or brought to justice. The decision of the military procurator to close the investigation of abuses in Alkhan-Yurt, and not prosecute those responsible for abuses there, is a grave failure of Russia's military justice system, but does not undercut the detailed allegations of abuse raised in this report, as the Russian military has never presented a credible, alternative explanation for the killings and other abuses in Alkhan-Yurt. In a March 9 meeting in Moscow, Human Rights Watch representatives confronted the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military, Colonel-General Valery Manilov, with findings about the massacres in Alkhan-Yurt, Staropromyslovski and Aldi. Colonel-General Manilov did not contest Human Rights Watch's findings, as other officials had, but also did not confirm them. He did, however, concede that the mentality of the Russian army had to be changed to guard against abuses in Chechnya.96
The failure of the Russian authorities to establish accountability for abuses committed in Chechnya makes it essential for the international community to carry out credible and independent investigations into the atrocities, and take the necessary steps to assure accountability within Russia or on the international level.
In January 2000, as international criticism for atrocities in Chechnya mounted, Acting President Vladimir Putin appointed Vladimir Kalamanov as Presidential Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya. Essentially an ombudsman, Kalamanov is authorized to forward cases of abuse to the military procurator and can seek political intervention from the presidency. Much has been made of the fact that two Council of Europe staff will work on Kalamanov's team. It is unlikely, however, that this limited involvement will result in transparency or better chances for accountability, as Kalamanov has made it clear that they will be answerable only to him. In a March 9 meeting with Human Rights Watch in Moscow, Kalamanov told Human Rights Watch that he had requested information on Alkhan-Yurt from the military procuracy, but was still awaiting an answer.97
The work of Oleg Mironov, Russia's human rights ombudsman, also has failed to address seriously the abuses committed by Russian forces in Chechnya. Mironov has been virtually silent on abuses in Chechnya, repeatedly arguing that the strong-arm methods of the Russian army are necessary to restore order in Chechnya and that Western criticism of atrocities in Chechnya are due to "ignorance," to "double standards," and to "a campaign of blackening Russia."98 Mironov's silence on abuses in Chechnya are in sharp contrast to the stand taken by his predecessor inthe office, Sergei Kovalyov, who regularly traveled to Chechnya during the first Chechnya war and was a leading voice speaking out about abuses during that conflict and an advocate for accountability.99
While the killings at Alkhan-Yurt were the first documented cases of large-scale summary executions of civilians in the second Chechen war, they have not been the last. In the Staropromyslovski district of Grozny, Russian troops killed at least fifty unarmed civilians, mostly elderly men and women, in several incidents during December 1999 and January 2000.100 On February 5, 2000, Russian troops carried out the biggest massacre of the second Chechnya war known to date, killing at least sixty-two civilians, and possibly many more, in the Aldi district of Grozny.101 The continuing failure of the Russian authorities to take the necessary steps to investigate the abuses in Chechnya, particularly the mass killings in Alkhan-Yurt, Staropromyslovski, and Aldi, and their failure to take steps to prevent their troops from committing further atrocities, makes the Russian military command complicit in these abuses.79 The military procuracy is a branch of the Procuracy General, and has jurisdiction for investigating crimes committed by servicemen and women.
80 See also Michael Gordon, "Russians Outraged at Tapes on Pillage in Chechnya," New York Times, December 30, 1999. Malik Saidulayev has refused to release the tape to the public, but has released parts of the tape to news agencies. Human Rights Watch has a partial transcript of the tape.
81 Military units are composed of both conscripts and kontraktniki.
82 Marcus Warren, "Grim Russians Brace for Grozny Struggle: News of Casualties has heightened the tension among Moscow's forces as they prepare for push into the Chechen capital," Sunday Telegraph (London), December 19, 1999. The article identifies Yevgeny Vassilievich as the colonel in charge of the 15th Battalion.
83 Human Rights Watch interview with "Lecha L." (not his real name), Pliyevo, Ingushetia, December 13, 1999.
84 Human Rights Watch interview with Maret Mudalova, thirty-four, and Lipa Assuyeva, forty-five, Adlet-20 border crossing, Ingushetia, December 13, 1999.
85 This particular epithet was used in a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement of February 18, 2000, in response to U.S. Department of State Spokesman Jamie Rubin's expression of U.S. government concern about atrocities in Chechnya.
86 "Russian Army Denounces Latest Western Reports on Chechnya," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, December 20, 1999.
87 "Russia Promises Results of Massacre Inquiry within Ten Days," Agence France Presse, December 23, 1999.
88 "Russian Defense Ministry Defends Action in Alkhan-Yurt," Itar-Tass, December 23, 1999. Military Procurator Yuri Dyomin repeated this line of argument in a March 10, 2000 meeting with Human Rights Watch in Moscow.
89 "Chechen Cameraman says Alkhan-Yurt Combat Footage is Forgery," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, December 24, 1999.
90 Robyn Dixon and Mayerbek Nunayev, "Chechens Say Real Horror Began After Battle Ended War: Villagers Describe a Rampage of Looting, Murder, and Mutilation by Russian Soldiers Who Took Their Town," Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1999.
91 Ian Traynor, "Moscow Makes Heroes of its War Generals," Guardian (London), December 29, 1999.
92 "Russian Military Prosecutor Denies Soldiers Arrested for Alleged Massacre," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, December 24, 1999.
93 "Prosecutors Find no Trace of `Drunken Murder' in Chechnya," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, December 24, 1999; "Investigation into Alkhan-Yurt continues," Interfax, December 29, 1999.
94 "No Criminal Proceedings over Alleged Atrocity in Chechen Village-Prosecutor," BBC Worldwide Monitoring Service, December 31, 1999.
95 Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth and the Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia division Rachel Denber met with Military Procurator Yuri Dyomin on March 10 in Moscow. They also met with Colonel-general Valerii Manilov, deputy chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, and Vladimir Kalamanov, presidential representative for human rights in Chechnya, on March 10 and March 9, 2000, respectively. For an account of summary executions committed by Russian forces in the Staropromyslovski district of Grozny, see Human Rights Watch, "Civilian Killings in Staropromyslovski District of Grozny," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 12, no. 2(D), February 2000.
96 Human Rights Watch meeting with Colonel-Valerii Manilov, Moscow, March 10, 2000.
97 Human Rights Watch meeting with Vladimir Kalamanov, Moscow, March 9, 2000.
98 "Russian Human Rights Commissioner Dwells on Chechen Events," Itar-Tass, December 14, 1999.
99 See Kathy Lally, "Russians Know of Human Rights Abuses, and Condone Them: Reports from Chechnya Describe Brutal Treatment of Civilians," The Baltimore Sun, December 17, 1999.
100 "Civilian Killings in Staropromyslovski District of Grozny," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 12, no. 2 (D), February 2000.
101 Human Rights Watch is continuing to investigate the mass killing in Aldi, and will issue a detailed report on its findings. The Aldi incident is described in the Human Rights Watch release, "More Than Sixty Civilians Murdered in Chechen Capital: `Pattern' of Summary Executions Emerging," February 23, 2000.