Vienna, July 20 – Many Chechens fear that the decision of the Memorial Legal Defense Center last week to suspend its operations in their republic in the wake of the murder of its representative Natalya Estemirova will “untie” the hands of the force structures there and lead to even more repression.
And their fears are compounded by the Russian Duma’s consideration of a measure that, while promising to provide compensation to victims of official violence, could have the effect of making it more difficult for Chechens and other victims to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a venue that has been their court of last resort in many cases.
Last Friday, the leadership of the Memorial Center announced that it was suspending operations in Chechnya both as a protest against the murder of Estemirova and because the powers that be in that North Caucasus republic could not guarantee the security of its representatives there (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/156830).
Some Chechens said that they believed Memorial had no other choice: “It is natural,” one told Kavkaz-uzel.ru, that “they had to react in some way to what happened” in the hopes of putting pressure on officials to take action and in order to call attention to the disingenuousness of statements by Russian and Chechen leaders that Chechnya is “peaceful.”
But other residents of that republic suggested that Memorial should be thinking “not only about the death of its colleague or how this will influence the leadership of the Chechnya, but also about how the populace of the republic and especially ordinary citizens who have sought its support and defense will react to this decision,” Kackaz-uzel.ru reports today.
In the words of one resident, however, “this decision is not ideal,” because “our local parliamentarians, bureaucrats, and ‘rights activists’ from Chechen ombudsman Nudzhiyev on down are seeking to exculpate in the first instance Ramzan Kadyrov” not because they are “upset” by this “bestial” crime but because “anyone might think” Kadyrov ordered it.
(Ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, in an action that many will see as evidence of such attitudes and fears, said that “one could only regret Memorial’s decision, even though he insisted that “the defenders of human rights of the Chechen Republic with Memorial or without it will occupy themselves with the defense of the rights of citizens.”)
What are ordinary Chechens to do, she continued, now that the Memorial offices have been “temporarily” closed? “What is to become of the tens and hundreds of those who had turned to Memorial as one of the few organizations which really tried to help people and whom the murdered Natasha Estemirova in fact helped?”
In the opinion of this Chechen, Memorial’s closure will only “further untie the hands of the siloviki who in recent times even without this have sharply increased their punitive and repressive actions.” Thus, she fears, by its action, “Memorial has in fact thrown the population of Chechnya to the arbitrariness of fate.”
But the murder of Estemirova and the temporary suspension of Memorial’s operations in Grozny were not the only setbacks the Chechens and other North Caucasians experienced last week. In Moscow, the Duma took up a law about the compensation of victims of counter-terrorist operations that will only add to their victimization and isolation.
The adoption of that law, Georgy Matyushkin, the Russian Federation’s representative at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, said last Monday, could lead that body, which has been the court of last resort for many Chechens to stop accepting so many cases they have brought over the last decade (www.newsru.com/russia/13jul2009/stras.html).
Moscow officials have been angered by the court, which has accepted more cases about the violation of human rights from Russia than from any other country, and have long sought a way to prevent the court from hearing them and giving the Russian powers that be, who in almost every such case lose, a public relations black eye every few months.
The current legal effort is based on a similar law that Turkey adopted in 2004. By creating a national program of compensation, that country has been able to reduce the number of appeals that the European Court has taken up. And now the Russian government clearly hopes for the same outcome.
But Russia may not succeed, some commentators say, because the Court’s own declarations suggest that Moscow will not meet a key test Strasbourg has set for not taking a case – the supplying of official documentation about the deaths or injuries that lie behind the suit. Moscow has not done this in the past, and the draft bill would not change that.
Memorial’s decision to suspend operations in Chechnya and Moscow’s efforts to short circuit the appeals process to the European Court, of course, represent a serious challenge to those in the West who want to see the government of the Russian Federation move toward becoming a law-based state.
In the absence of information supplied by groups like Memorial and the Strasbourg court, information that Chechen and Russian officials are doing what they can to block, many in the West and especially in Western governments that want “good relations” with Moscow will be inclined to assume that the situation is getting better when in fact it is getting worse.
And such false conclusions could reinforce a disturbing trend on the part of some governments in the West not to press Moscow on human rights issues lest raising such concerns get in the way of cooperation. The Chechens and other North Caucasians, of course, will be the first victims of such a policy. Tragically, they will not be the last.