Vienna, January 27 – The system of “death squadrons” established by Russian forces in Chechnya, an arrangement that involves kidnappings, secret prisons, extra-judicial executions, and the hidden disposal of the bodies of its victims, has claimed some 3,000 people in that North Caucasus republic over the last decade, according to a human rights expert.
That figure, in per capita terms, is comparable to the number of deaths from the infamous “disappearances” in Argentina under the junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the killings in the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, according to Aleksandr Cherkasov of Moscow’s Memorial organization (svpressa.ru/society/article/20301/).
Cherkasov’s comments came in reaction to a United Nations report released yesterday that listed Russia, along with 65 other countries including the United States, as being guilty of using secret prisons to hold terrorists as part of the worldwide campaign against terrorist since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Regarding Russia, the latest UN report supplements what the international body concluded in 2006 as part of its report on torture. That report listed a number of secret prisons in the North Caucasus in general and Chechnya in particular, including Tsentoroy, Gudermes, Shali, and Urus-Martan.
Cherkasov and his colleagues have investigated these secret prisons, and he notes in an interview to “Svobodnaya pressa” that the Urus-Martan facility was closed in the fall of 2007 after scandals broke in the press. But something may still be going on there, because six months later, Memorial officials had their cameras confiscated after they attempted to photograph it.
While in no way minimizing the violations of other countries in this regard, the Memorial researcher says that Russia’s secret prisons in the North Caucasus are part of a system “set up by the federal center” and involving “disappearances and the kidnapping of people” that has been operating for a decade.
According to Memorial’s estimates, some 3,000 people have disappeared “without a trace.” (The number who have been kidnapped or confined and then later released, of course, he suggests, is much, much higher.) But now, as at various points in the past, many people are afraid to report about such things and so the actual situation may be much worse.
“By its scale,” Cherkasov says, this system of “disappearances” and secret prisons “exceeds the analogous practice in which the Americans are accused by an order of magnitude.” Moreover, “in the case of the Americans, one is talking not about extra-judicial executions but only about secret prisons."
In the North Caucasus, he continues, “the situation is more serious,” comparable in fact to the disappearances in Argentina 30 years ago and to the losses in per capita terms that Soviet citizens suffered during the time of the Great Terror in 1937-38. Indeed, “in recent years,” the per capita losses from the death squadrons may be higher in Chechnya than Stalin’s USSR.
The UN is expected to publish its full report soon, but Cherkasov suggests that it will have little effect on Russia. On the one hand, so many countries are involved that even those that have traditionally been able to push for change will not because they themselves are implicated in this shadowy form of action.
And on the other, Russia can block any application of this report to itself because of its veto in the UN Security Council. The only international body to which Russia has ceded any sovereignty at all in this regard is the Council of Europe, whose European Court of Human Rights has found Moscow guilty of using extra-judicial killings in the North Caucasus.
But with regard to that Court’s decision, Cherkasov continues, the Russian government has usually been willing to pay compensation to victims or their families, but it has rarely if ever punished those of its officials who are guilty of these crimes or changed its policies in this area, as members of the Council of Europe are supposedly obligated to do.
Moreover, Cherkasov points out, Moscow now is making sure that the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights will not learn anything more about its secret prisons in the North Caucasus: it has prevented the Council official charged with preparing report on them from entering Russia, even though that same official prepared one on the CIA’s secret prisons.