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Moscow Times
February 18, 2003
Kovalyov Takes Grim Message to U.S.
By Matt Bivens
Special to The Moscow Times

WASHINGTON -- Russian federal forces have been using a centrally organized system of "death squads" to kill or disappear civilians across the length and breadth of Chechnya, says a prominent State Duma deputy and human rights activist now making the rounds in Washington.

Sergei Kovalyov, 72 and a biologist by training, has been laying evidence of the death squads before American audiences with the methodical calm of an elderly scientist.

He has spoken to foreign policy experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and at the American Foreign Policy Council, and held closed-door meetings at the U.S. Senate; this week he takes his grim message to academics, journalists and politicians in New York.

Kovalyov has often demonstrated unusual political bravery. He served 12 years in Soviet labor camps for his beliefs, and in 1995 helped defuse a hostage crisis by convincing a tense band of Chechens to accept him and one other Duma deputy in exchange for hundreds of women and children.

That same bravery was on display in Washington as Kovalyov floated the possibility that the death squads operate in Chechnya with the approval of the highest levels of the military, quite possibly including commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin himself.

"If [top military and government officials] know of these death squads, then why are they keeping silent?" he asked rhetorically. "And if they don't know of these death squads, the question is: Why don't they?

"We are always finding, all across Chechnya, mass graves of civilians," Kovalyov said during a talk Friday at the American Foreign Policy Council. "Sometimes it's not even a grave but a heap of dumped bodies.

"Whenever we can identify the bodies, it turns out each grave or heap contains people not from that local area, but instead from all across Chechnya. The bodies belong to people who had been detained at different checkpoints in different parts of Chechnya, yet somehow they are turning up in a grave together, often quite far from where they were detained.

"This circumstance totally rules out the idea that these atrocities were committed by soldiers who got out of hand: If that were the case, the corpses would be from one area and would be near those troops.

"Another circumstance: Recently in particular, almost all of the corpses we are finding have been blown up [with explosives]. This is one of the reasons we've identified so few of the remains -- it seems they're being destroyed to hide their identities. Corpses are being blown up all across Chechnya -- not in just one place -- so this too indicates a coordinated general policy."

Just in January, Kovalyov's allies at human rights group Memorial reported at least 61 Chechen civilians had been detained, of whom 29 have disappeared without a trace -- their relatives can learn nothing of their fate.

Also last month, some 22 fresh bodies were discovered. "Of these 22 dead, how many belong to the ranks of the 29 disappeared? At this point, we can only guess," Kovalyov said.

This is not the first time an observer of the war in Chechnya has claimed death squads are active there. The Moscow Helsinki Group, respected advocates for human rights, spoke of Russian-run death squads in its annual report issued last summer. Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, titled her book about Chechnya "The Dirty War" -- an allusion to the disappearances and death squads of 1970s and '80s Argentina.

But Kovalyov is putting his allegations -- alongside his own moral stature -- directly before U.S. policy elites, at a time when the State Department is considering a Russian request to declare Chechen guerrilla groups international terrorist organizations.

Just before leaving for Washington, Kovalyov was admonished by the Duma ethics commission for his criticism of Russia during previous trips abroad.

During a heated discussion of the ethics commission report on Feb. 7, Kovalyov said the commission was "servile." In response, Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky called Kovalyov "state criminal No. 1" for his "dirty slander" of Russia in speeches abroad.

Undeterred, Kovalyov continued in Washington to challenge Russia's assertions that Russia has made progress toward peace in the region. He called that "a deliberate lie that's being actively disseminated."

"In what do we see this progress of which so much is said in Russia, and in the West as well?" Kovalyov asked.

He suggested "naive people" were accepting a simplistic line of reasoning: With carpet-bombing over, civilian death tolls are lower, so things are better.

But they aren't, Kovalyov says, and a referendum in Chechnya, now just five weeks off, can already be dismissed as a fraud. He said the vote will be held under what amounts to an undeclared state of emergency -- with curfews and checkpoints limiting movement.

There are no independent publications in Chechnya, and no assemblies or demonstrations are allowed save those organized by the pro-Kremlin administration of Akhmad Kadyrov.

"This ban on demonstrations is sometimes violated, for example, by women -- they are a bit less likely to be suspected of being guerrillas -- who spontaneously assemble after their village has been subjected to an unusually brutal 'cleansing,'" Kovalyov said.

Kovalyov said he suspects the March 23 referendum will result in renewed bloodshed: Pro-separatist agitators will be "disappeared" by the federals, while pro-federal candidates and agitators will be hunted down and shot by separatists.

In the end, whatever political entity emerges from the voting will be no more legitimate than the current Kremlin-installed regime, he said.

Rather than pursue a rush referendum, the Kremlin should accept Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's offers of negotiations. "World history demonstrates: If you want to end an armed conflict, you must, whether you like it or not, talk to the enemy," Kovalyov said.

When Boris Yeltsin ordered the invasion of Chechnya in 1994, Kovalyov, then a top human rights official, oversaw research to estimate the death toll. After two years of fighting, Kovalyov's team could offer their conservative, documented estimate of more than 50,000 civilian deaths. Others put the death toll at twice that. Today Kovalyov declines to put a number to the civilian death toll in the current, more than four-year-old war, other than to say it is "many tens of thousands." He says the scientific social surveys conducted during the first war are now impossible.

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