February 5: A Day of Slaughter in Novye Aldi
|On February 5, 2000, Russian forces summarily executed at least sixty
civilians in Aldi and Chernorechie, suburbs of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
The massacre, which amounts to a war crime, took place in the midst of
a sweep operation, several days after Russian forces seized Grozny.
The perpetrators of this massacre were Russian riot police and contract soldiers, or men hired by the military for short-term service contracts. According to the Russian military procuracy for the North Caucasus, riot police units from the city of St. Petersburg and Riazan province undertook a sweep operation in Aldi that day. The units responsible for the killings in Chernorechie are not yet known. While going on house-to-house document checks to ferret out Chechen rebel fighters they shot their victims in cold blood, with automatic weapons, at close range.
Some killings were accompanied by demands for money or jewelry, which served as a pretext for execution if the amount was insufficient; several of the victims lacked identity papers. A few witnesses stated that soldiers forcibly removed the victims' gold teeth or stole jewelry from corpses. The killings were often accompanied by acts of arson.
Despite the great cultural stigma attached to rape in Chechnya's predominantly Muslim communities, reports of the rape of women by Russian soldiers in Aldi on February 5 have surfaced. Several women gave credible, second-hand accounts of three cases of rape. This suggests that the actual number of incidents could be many more than are currently known. In one incident, soldiers reportedly gang-raped four women and strangled three of them, leaving the fourth for dead.
Russian contract soldiers torched many homes of Chechen civilians in Aldi. Witness after witness told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews, conducted in private, that they either had seen Russian soldiers deliberately set fire to their homes or property or returned home to find their homes on fire or burned to the ground. The incidents of arson were wanton acts of gratuitous destruction. Some of the arson seemed to be primitive attempts to destroy evidence of summary executions and other civilian killings. In one incident, the arson itself appeared to have been a murder attempt.
While soldiers engaged in some pillage on February 5, pillage on a massive scale took place during the following week. Witnesses stated that soldiers returned in large numbers on February 10, and in broad daylight brazenly stripped their homes of goods of value.
The Russian authorities' investigation into the Aldi massacre was accompanied by indignant, public denial. Typical of the Russian military's reaction to Human Rights Watch's preliminary report on the killings was a February 24 statement, by a Ministry of Defense spokesman, declaring that "these assertions are nothing but a concoction not supported by fact or any proof . . . [and] should be seen as a provocation whose goal is to discredit the federal forces' operation against the terrorists in Chechnya." In fact, investigators from the Federal Security Service (the successor agency to the KGB), the military, and the civilian procuracies had, by the time of that statement, already commenced their investigations. As of this writing, there are reportedly three civilian procurators investigating the killings. To the best of our knowledge, no one has been charged and no serviceman or military commander has been suspended pending the investigation.
The international community has limited itself, in the form of a United Nations resolution, to calling for an independent national commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in Chechnya. But because the Russian government to date has shown a clear lack of political will to vigorously investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the Aldi massacre, a national commission of inquiry is likely to be inadequate. Further, several witnesses expressed their fear and mistrust of the Russian investigators who came to Aldi and stated that they had withheld information for fear of reprisals. Only an international commission of inquiry could enjoy the trust of the eyewitnesses and that of the relatives of the massacre survivors. Until such an international commission is formed, with the power to recommend prosecutions, there remains little likelihood of the guilty ever being punished.
In the course of researching this report, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than thirty-five residents of Aldi; some of them were witnesses of the killings, others were close relatives of the victims. While it is customary practice for Human Rights Watch researchers to travel directly to the site of human rights abuses to see for themselves the scene of the alleged crimes, in Chechnya, this has not been possible. Research was undertaken from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Russian authorities have repeatedly denied requests from Human Rights Watch for access to Chechnya despite issuing public statements to the contrary. Such limitation on the work of Human Rights Watch and other international and national human rights groups does little to encourage the belief that the Russian government is serious in its publicly stated desire to ensure respect for human rights in Chechnya.