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RUSSIA: Chechen Civilians Face Collective Punishment

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Jul 2 2009 (IPS) - Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to home burnings and other collective punishment practices against families of alleged insurgents in Chechnya, said a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released Thursday.

The report, “‘What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You’: Punitive House-Burning in Chechnya,” documents a distinct pattern of house burnings by security forces to punish families for the alleged actions of their relatives.

“Russia has said its ‘counterterrorism operation’ in Chechnya is over, but human rights violations there certainly aren’t,” said Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of HRW’s Russia office. “Burning down peoples’ homes for the alleged sins of their families is a criminal tactic, and there is no reason why the government can’t put a stop to it and hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The report documents 13 of 26 known cases of punitive home burnings between June 2008 and June 2009 that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel in eight districts of Chechnya.

The most recent known case took place on Jun. 18. The Memorial Human Rights Centre, a leading Russian human rights organisation working in the North Caucasus, reported that at about 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen burned two homes belonging to the elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, Gudermes district.

According to the report, the cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel, often masked, arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.


In all the cases documented in the report, the families whose houses were burned have alleged insurgents among their close relatives, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home “from the woods” and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so.

Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and appeared to have been motivated by retribution.

Victims filed official complaints in only three of the cases known to HRW. In another three cases, the victims agreed to have Memorial raise their cases with the authorities. At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness, HRW said.

The report said two government officials have acknowledged that families were targeted for house-burning because of their relatives who were alleged insurgents, although they denied this was a government policy.

The second Chechen war, between the government of Chechnya and Islamist fundamentalist insurgents, began in 1999. Russian forces entered the country in September to launch a massive counter-insurgency campaign in response to the rebels’ incursion into neighbouring Dagestan and apartment bombings in Moscow, which they blamed on Chechens.

The fighting devastated Chechnya, including the almost complete destruction of Grozny, the capital.

The insurgency, under a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus, has used a variety of violent tactics, including car bombings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.

Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighbouring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically.

In 2008, high-level Chechen officials, including President Ramzan Kadyrov, made public statements that the families of insurgents should expect to be punished unless they convinced their relatives to surrender.

“The use of appalling and unlawful tactics by rebel fighters does not justify the use of similar tactics by the government forces fighting the insurgency,” said Lokshina.

Earlier this month, the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was wounded in a car bombing, an apparent assassination attempt.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said Russian President Dimitry Medvedev had told him to intensify operations in both Chechnya and Ingushetia.

“He told me to intensify actions… including in Ingushetia. I will personally control the operations… and I am sure in the near future there will be good results,” he told Reuters earlier this week.

Kadyrov has been credited with bringing calm to the region. His tactic of recruiting rebels into his forces in exchange for personal security guarantees has made it difficult for rebels to operate in the region. His militias, however, have been accused of widespread abuses by human rights groups.

According to the report, the Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told HRW that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm.

“The unpunished assaults on human rights in Chechnya are a perversion of justice and should not be tolerated,” said Lokshina. “The perpetrators need to be held accountable.”

In more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for serious human rights violations in Chechnya. HRW called on the Russian government to ensure that the rulings in these cases are implemented effectively.

“Fully implementing the European Court’s judgments is one of the best ways of ending impunity in Chechnya,” said Lokshina. “In a climate of accountability, it’s hard to imagine crimes like punitive home burnings taking place.”

 
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