Aslan Maskhadov, the exiled leader of the Chechen independence movement, last month urged the Kremlin to begin talks to end a decade of conflict. The call for peace talks came as local officials admitted that the ceasefire Maskhadov had ordered earlier had been effective. Moscow and the puppet government had been claiming that Maskhadov had no control over the “separatist rebels”, and that it was not necessary to engage him in peace talks. Now that Moscow’s claims have been shown to be false, and that the Chechens are willing to talk peace as well as being capable of resistance, the so-called international community should support them and cooperate with them to bring about a cessation of hostilities and violence.
While Mashadov was ordering a ceasefire, offering open-ended peace talks, and calling on US president George W. Bush to “stop appeasing Putin in Chechnya”, a leading Western human-rights group accuses Russia of conducting a campaign of terror involving torture, kidnapping and murder, forcing the local populace to live in a climate of “fear and intimidation”.
Human Rights Watch said on February 16 that Chechen civilians are being abducted at the rate of two a day by the authorities for “interrogation purposes”, but many disappear without trace. And while those abducted in the past have been young men, now the authorities target the most vulnerable: the old, young women, and teenagers. The manner of their abductions is equally shocking: some of them are seized at their homes, dragged onto the street and shot then and there without any fuss. Others are drugged and tortured.
Anna Neistat, the head of Human Rights Watch’s office in Moscow, has said that the conditions of the Chechens’ lives, already blighted, are in fact getting worse. “It is really difficult to believe that the situation in Chechnya could get worse than it has been in the past couple of years, but that is what we heard from a number of witnesses,” she said. “At least during the wars they knew what to expect, but now they live in constant fear because anything could happen at any moment.” She blames federal forces and militias loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s Moscow-backed deputy prime minister, for two thirds of all abductions.
Neistat, who was speaking after two weeks of investigations conducted by her group, added: “We’ve talked to people who have been released. Their fingers were broken, they were detained with a bag over their heads and were drugged and starved... They were severely tortured... and then dumped in a forest.” According to her, all this was inflicted on them to obtain information or simply because they were suspected of having connections with the independence movement. She did not find it surprising that those who survive such ordeals are too afraid to complain. “People are absolutely... scared to talk,” she said. “They believe that if they say a single word their relatives would be kidnapped the next day.”
Human Rights Watch is not the only group making serious accusations against the Russian regime and its puppet government in Johar-Gala (Grozny), the capital of Chechnya. Memorial, another human-rights group, recently put the number of people to have gone missing in Chechnya in the last five years at about 1,000 civilians; the real figure is almost certainly much higher. Last year alone Memorial recorded almost 400 abductions, including those of 24 people who were later found dead; their bodies bore the signs of their having been tortured.
The combined charges, based on credible investigations, make a nonsense of the claims by Moscow and its puppet government that the country is at peace, and that things are going back to “normal”, thanks partly to the “generous federal funds” being poured into Chechnya to rebuild it. Clearly law and order do not prevail, as the official line proclaims, and the beleaguered populace are the victims of war crimes and, indeed, at times of what amounts almost to genocide. But the very countries and international institutions that accuse Sudan of committing war crimes and genocide against the people of Darfur are silent about Moscow’s war crimes and other atrocities in Chechnya.
Neistat has said that Bush should raise the issue during his impending meeting with Putin at the summit in Slovakia. “It is time for the international community to stop ignoring what is going on in Chechnya. International law is not being respected,” she said. Neistat must know that Bush and Putin are not interested in supporting respect for human rights, especially not in the Muslim world, and that their main interest is to coordinate their war against Islam and Muslims, officially known as the “war on terrorism”. But her statements and call are timely steps that might help to refocus world attention on Chechnya and give credibility to the policy initiatives recently undertaken by Chechen leaders in exile.
By coincidence, Ahmad Zakayev, the special envoy of Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the independence movement and former president of Chechnya, wrote a commentary on the same issues in the International Herald Tribune on the very day Neistat made her accusations against Russia and called on the international community to act. Zakayev began his article by saying that Bush and Putin would begin to discuss the issue of Chechnya during their meeting at the very moment that “time is running out in the Caucasus”. And he was, unlike Neistat, very critical of Bush, accusing him of backing Putin’s plans for Chechnya from the very beginning.
“Three years ago, the US president gave Putin the green light for his plan of Chechen pacification, which consisted of draconian measures against the civilian population, the installation of a puppet government and a propaganda campaign in the West that portrayed the Chechen independence movement as Islamic terrorists,” he wrote. Luckily, according to Zakayev the plan has failed, as the “armed resistance” has not been defeated and the people have not embraced “the Quisling government”. Moreover, “courts in Britain and the United States [have] cleared Chechen political figures, such as myself, of Russian accusations of terrorism,” he added. Zakayev also claims that opposition to the war in Russian society has been growing, citing the call for peace talks of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers last November. He calls on Bush to “stop appeasing Putin” and to support the offer of peace talks by the Chechen resistance, in order to resolve the conflict in all of the Caucasus.