Sunday, February 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Chechens Paid a High Price for Putin’s ‘Stability’

Paul Goble

Baku, February 10 – President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that the Russian Federation had stabilized during his time in office, almost eight years to the day that the forces he sent into a Chechen village committed what one human rights activist says was “the most terrible event “ of the second post-Soviet Chechen war.
And in an article about that crime which appeared on the “Caucasus Times” site even as Putin was delivering his speech, Aleksandr Cherkasov of Memorial reminded the world about the terrible price Chechens had paid for the stability for which the Russian President was then taking credit (
What happened in the Chechen village of Novye Aldy on February 5, 2000, has been extremely well-documented by Western human rights organizations despite the fact that Moscow attempted to throw a blanket of silence over it at the time and has refused to bring any of the perpetrators to trial.
Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report shortly after the events took place ( entitled “February 5: A Day of Slaughter in Novye Aldy,” and lawyers for the families of the victims have provided additional information as they have sought compensation for what was done.
But in the Russian media in the first months of Putin’s time in office, Cherkasov points out, “people spoke about [Moscow’s] victories” in Chechnya and did not offer much in the way of honest reporting about how those victories were achieved, a pattern that Putin continued in his speech last week.
On that February day, Russian military units passed through Novye Aldy in the course of their advance on the Chechen capital. As they left that village, they warned the people there that “terrible people are coming behind us,” a reference to the Russian interior ministry’s OMON units.
When the latter arrived, Cherkasov writes, “they moved through the village, going into each household, killing, stealing, extorting money (in certain cases it was possible to buy one’s life), [and even] pulling out gold fillings from the teeth of those who were not in a position to pay off” the OMON soldiers.
This group killed 55 of the villagers, and that number would doubtless have been far higher had it not been for the quick thinking of a local nurse who urged people to gather in the streets in the hopes that even the OMON would not be willing to shoot down people in front of a crowd of witnesses.
Over the next several years, the families of the victims tried with little success to get Russian prosecutors to investigate what happened and to bring charges against those who had violated the Russian constitution, common decency, and international agreements Moscow has committed itself to fulfill.
But Russian prosecutors and other officials cut short the few investigations they did launch and have never charged any of the OMON soldiers or officers with a crime, despite the fact that officials know exactly what unit was in Novye Aldy on that date and have been given extensive forensic evidence on the victims.
As a result, the Novye Aldy families took the only other step left to them: they appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. And in a unanimous decision last July, that court ordered Moscow to pay them almost 200,000 U.S. dollars (
More important than the money both to the families and to history was the Court’s stinging indictment of Russian prosecutors and by implication the Russian government as a whole. “The astonishing ineffectiveness of the prosecuting authorities in this case,” the Court said, “can only be qualified as acquiescence in the events.”
“The killings” in Novye Aldy, the Court continued in far harsher language than it has used in most of the cases from Russia that have come before it, “had been committed in broad daylight, and a large number of witnesses, including some of the applicants, had seen the perpetrators face to face.”
But “despite all that and notwithstanding the domestic and international public outcry caused by the cold-blooded execution of more than 50 civilians … no meaningful result whatsoever had been achieved [before the case came to Strasbourg] in the task of identifying and prosecuting the individuals who had committed the crimes.”
Echoing the European Court’s ruling, Memorial’s Cherkasov argues that “all Russia ought to be interested in finding and punishing the criminals.” But for the last eight years, “we have heard [only] about the victories [of Russian arms in Chechnya] and the glorious operations of ‘the hunt for wolves.’”
One can only hope along with Cherkasov that both Russians and the international community will both find out about and condemn other crimes that Moscow has visited upon the Chechens and their neighbors in the North Caucasus as President Putin, often to the applause of Western leaders, has pursued “stability” there.

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