The Times (UK)
January 28, 2003
Europe turns spotlight on human rights in Chechnya
The Russians are finding themselves under increasing scrutiny for their behaviour in this troubled breakaway region
By Philip Leach
The author is a solicitor and senior lecturer in law at London Metropolitan University. He is the Director of EHRAC.
Human rights abuses in Chechnya are hitting the headlines once again. Gross violations, allegedly carried out by the Russian authorities, are still being reported by human rights groups, including extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture.
This month a new unit, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, is being established at London Metropolitan University to assist lawyers and non-governmental organisations in Russia with human rights cases and training.
In spite of the continuing conflict, the Russians have been putting pressure on thousands of displaced Chechens to leave their tent camps in Ingushetia and return to Chechnya. There are frequent criticisms that the authorities are failing properly to investigate complaints about such abuses. Very few alleged perpetrators have been brought to trial. Thus, the acquittal on December 31 of Colonel Yuri Budanov of the murder of Kheda Kungaeva, an 18-year-old Chechen woman, has been criticised by human rights defenders as one more example of impunity.
Kungaeva was abducted, beaten, raped and killed in March 2000. Colonel Budanov had admitted having strangled the woman, a suspected rebel sniper, in a fit of rage. He was acquitted by a military court on the basis of “temporary insanity”.
Chechen rebels have also been condemned for human rights violations, particularly the apparent increased targeting of civilians, following the Moscow hostage siege, and the bombing of the headquarters of the pro-Moscow Government of Chechnya in Grozny on December 27.
Since this second stage of the conflict began in 1999, the Russians have received intensive support from the international community in an effort to protect human rights and rebuild the civilian administration.
The Council of Europe has had experts in Chechnya since 2000. They include Alvaro Gil-Robles, its Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Russian Federation was accepted into the Council of Europe in 1996 and made itself subject to the obligatory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in 1998. The excessive delays in the court’s system has meant that only two final judgments concerning Russia have been given by the court to date.
However, many cases from Russia are pending at the court (at present about 3,700), including cases alleging gross violations in Chechnya. British human rights lawyers, including the solicitor Gareth Peirce, have already been assisting with this work.
The court has just published its first admissibility decisions arising from the conflict in Chechnya. These cases concern the shelling of a Chechen village, the bombing of a convoy of civilian vehicles attempting to leave the Grozny area during a period of armed hostilities, and the murder and mutilation of inhabitants of Grozny, all allegedly committed by the Russian military in 1999 and 2000.
The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) is being funded, initially for three years, by the European Commission. Its remit will extend to the whole of the Russian Federation, including Chechnya. Working in partnership with a leading Russian human rights organisation, Memorial, its Human Rights Centre, and the Bar Human Rights Committee, EHRAC will build on the work of the barrister Bill Bowring. He is a Professor of Human Rights and International Law at London Metropolitan University, which was created in August 2002 following the merger of the University of North London and London Guildhall University. Professor Bowring, a Russian speaker, has worked for many years on the development of human rights in Russia on behalf of the UK Government, the Council of Europe, and other bodies. He has been specially concerned in the drafting and enactment of the new Criminal Procedure Code which came into force in Russia in July last year.
Among other reforms, including the extension of jury trial to most of Russia, the new code radically changed the role of the Prosecutor’s Office in criminal proceedings. Its powers to decide on the arrest and pre- trial detention of suspects have been transferred to the courts, in line with Council of Europe and international standards.
The London office of EHRAC will be based at the department of law, governance and international relations of London Metropolitan University, and will draw on the expertise of human rights practitioners and academics in the UK and in Europe. In Russia, the project will support three lawyers in Moscow and five human rights liaison officers in the regions of Russia.
In spite of the excessive delays in Strasbourg (there are more than 25,000 pending cases), the experience from Turkey has shown that the European Court does offer a form of remedy for the victims, or, more usually, the relatives of victims of gross human rights violations within the body of the Council of Europe.
Further reforms of the Strasbourg system are being discussed, with many human rights groups expressing concern about proposals to allow the court to decline to deal with cases unless they raise a “substantial issue”.
In cases of gross human rights violations (notably from Turkey) a vital element of the process has been, exceptionally, for European Court judges to hold fact-finding hearings in the state concerned. It is encouraging that the court appears to be willing to continue with such hearings, for despite their obvious costs, they have proved to be an essential element in providing justice to individuals in Europe. Nevertheless, given the backlog of cases, it is clear that reform of the Strasbourg system is urgently needed.