Human Rights in Chechnya

Maybe I’ve had my head in the sand for a while, but I was a bit shocked to read this article in the New York Times today about a murdered Chechen exile.

I can recall hearing buzz about Chechen rebellion against Moscow for years, but this insightful article educated me about something I didn’t know, the grotesque human rights abuses perpetuated in the republic.

Sure, anyone can assume that in a nation faced with the challenges of a history of Russian dominance, a broken economy, multiple races and religions (most Chechens are Islamic but a minority of ethnic Russians still follows the Russian Orthodox church), and a Russian Army under the aggressive Putin breathing down your neck, that internal war and inhuman actions are going to take place, but I was still surprised.

Essentially, the article boils down to this.  It tells the story of a young man who joined the Islamic rebel group at 17 after his mother was killed during a Russian invasion in 1995.  In 2003, he (along with two fellow fighters) was captured by the current Chechen authorities who support the Russians. What followed was a long period of detention and torture at the hands of  Ramzan A. Kadyrov (the current President of Chechnya and son of then President Akhmad Kadyrov) and members of the Presidential Security Service.

Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press

President Ramzan A Kadyrov of Chechnya Credit: Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press

When offered a deal to abandon the rebel side and join the Security Service or be killed, the young man took the deal and joined the service, only to defect a year later to prevent his family from being attacked.  He escaped to Poland on a forged passport and later claimed asylum in Austria.

When he went missing, his father, step-mother, and other family members were arrested.  His father was sent to the same torture camp and held for ten months.  Kadyrov found the young man’s phone number in Poland on his father’s phone and demanded the young man’s return.  He refused, and eventually his family was released, later claiming asylum in other Western European countries.

January 13, the young man’s past caught up with him.  He was shot three times and killed outside his apartment in Vienna by Chechens, assumed to be sent by Kadyrov.

That’s the back story, but here’s the important part– the number of atrocities committed at the hands of the state.  Despite his youthful looks (at 32), President Ramzan A. Kadyrov has been accused by journalists, human rights groups, and Chechens of torture and massive human rights violations similar to those known of the most hardened dictators.  The article lists the treatments endured by the young man, his father, and their fellow captives.  Many of these acts have been confirmed independently and the men’s bodies show the damage.  President Kadyrov was present for many of these actions and occasionally committed the acts himself.

The list:

  • Beatings (kicking, stomping, etc.) by multiple men while the victim was tied down, including one with a shovel handle
  • Electrocution administered by wires being attached to the toes. Sometimes water was also dumped on the victim to enhance the pain.
  • Hanging of the victim in uncomfortable positions such as tying one by his arms to exercise machinery. (The torture occurred at a former weightlifting center.)
  • Kadyrov shooting at the captive’s feet with a pistol
  • Burning with heated metal rods
  • Burning with gas flames
  • Sodomy inflicted by shovel handle
  • Execution by gunfire

Keep in mind that many of these treatments were given to the family members of the rebel groups.  Innocent people who were illegally abducted, held, and tortured in order to “smoke out” the rebels hiding in the forests.  Not just military combatants.

For his part, President Kadyrov denies any wrong doing and claims that as a good Muslim he wouldn’t hurt anyone.

The flip side of all of this is that the rebel group is frowned upon for its tactics.  The group is known for terrorist actions and was behind the 2004 siege of a school in Beslan, Russia (which some may recall.)  Once almost in control of Chechnya, the rebels’ power eroded as Chechens loyal to Moscow emerged and received the Kremlin’s backing.

But here’s the real point:  it’s incredible how many human rights atrocities are currently commited.  It’s amazing how un-aware the public is of these issues.  It’s important that actions are taken to stop it.

This requires review, trial, recommendations, judgments, and sentencing by the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, Inter-American Court, and Ad Hoc Committees of the International Court of Justice.  Nations seeking to be at the forefront of International power  *ahem U.S., U.K., etc.* need to get their own acts together and also open up their Alien Tort systems and allow such human rights abuses to be tried.   Even if the judgments in the end can’t enforce changes or place violators behind bars, the symbolic act of conviction would mean a lot.  I’d like to see the military powers finally use their international clout for good.

Yes, I’m an internationalist.  But how many Americans are ready to see the U.S. make a change in direction? Instead of finding excuses to work outside of international law as the Bush Administration did, America can get involved and push to give such committees and courts stronger teeth.  We can put a teenager in jail for graffiti or stealing cars,  I’d like to see the world able to legally and peacefully take down leaders who rule by violence and fear.  If that means the U.S. gives up some power to international institutions, or has to put more of its money into the court systems,  I fully support it.

A final note:  Thank you Prof. Karen J. Alter at Northwestern University who kicked my tail in her International Law class, but taught me so much about the legal structures we live in. (Yes, I went back to my notes from her class to make sure I wasn’t listing any institutions that wouldn’t have jurisdiction in human rights cases.  Now if only I could better figure out what kind of rights members of rebel factions had when in conflict with governments signed on to various treaties.)

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