WORLD REPORT 1997 - The Russian Federation

Human Rights Developments

The Russian Federation=s human rights practices did not improve in 1996 despite heightened expectations stemming from its admission into the Council of Europe and from President Boris Yeltsin=s re-election campaign promises. The August 1996 Khasavyurt agreements ended twenty months of war in Chechnya and the hideous violations of humanitarian law that had so tragically characterized it. New laws sought to implement Council of Europe standards in the Russian criminal justice system, and two Constitutional Court decisions reinforced guarantees of freedom of movement and due process. But the systematic violations of the rules of armed conflict in Chechnya from January through mid-August, unabated police brutality, especially against non-ethnic Russians, and the continued failure to repeal the propiska (residence permit) system underscored the Russian government=s indifference to its domestic and international human rights commitments.

In the second year of war in Chechnya, civilians were the victims of indiscriminate and disproportionate fire in most areas of Chechnya, causing anywhere from 18,500 to 80,000 civilian deaths since the start of the war in December 1994. For example, in the December 1995 battle for Gudermes, Chechnya=s second-largest town, Russian forces pounded parts of the town with heavy artillery and surface- and helicopter-launched shells, killing at least 267 civilians.

In his re-election campaign, President Yeltsin promised to end the war in Chechnya, which resulted in the Nazran cease-fire agreement. Within days of Yeltsin=s re-election on July 3, however, indiscriminate bombing in Gekhi and Makhety killed at least another twenty civilians, and soon thereafter indiscriminate and disproportionate bombing and shelling killed an untold number of civilians throughout villages of eastern and southern Chechnya. In the August battle for Grozny, Russian bombs and shells destroyed entire apartment blocks and at least one hospital, and hit residential suburbs with wild inaccuracy. Gen. Konstantin Pulikovskii=s August 20 ultimatum to carpet bomb Grozny, giving the city=s 300,000 civilians forty-eight hours to evacuate, fortunately dissolved as new peace negotiations began.

Dozens of civilians reported to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial (a leading Russian human rights organization) that they were shot at as they attempted to flee hostilities in Gudermes, and that dozens were killed and wounded. In another glaring example of direct attacks on civilians, Russian helicopters opened fire on a column of buses and cars transporting civilians fleeing Grozny after the August 20 ultimatum; ten civilians were killed. In early March, Russian forces blockaded the village of Sernovodsk, home to 7,000 civilians (the majority of them displaced persons from Chechnya); they forbade civilians from leaving the village and international humanitarian relief organizations from entering until after shelling had already begun. According to Memorial, at least forty-five civilians were killed during hostilities. On March 15, Russian forces gave civilians a two-hour warning to leave Samashki, a village of 7,000, before shelling it. Such short notice proved fatally inadequate. Russian forces refused to allow Chechen men to flee past the Samashki checkpoint, forcing them to remain under the shelling.

In June, the Ministry of Internal Affairs closed PAP-1, Grozny=s most notorious Afiltration@ camp. While this was clearly a positive development, Russian forces not only continued the practice of beating and torturing Chechen menCthe vast majority of them civiliansCcaptured at checkpoints and holding them in unofficial Afiltration@ points; they also used these civilians as hostages to be exchanged for Russian detainees. Memorial documented at least three incidents of Russian forces using civilians as human shields: in Samashki, in March, where villagers were forced to ride on an armored personnel carrier (APC) through the village; and in Grozny, where from August 9-11 a trapped group of Russian troops took up defensive positions in Hospital No. 9, refused to allow the staff to tend to their patients, and used hospital staff as shields against Chechen fire.

The exchange of prisoners and detainees unfolded haltingly during 1996, resulting in few releases, in violation of the Aall-for-all@ principle set out in the Khasavyurt agreement. Between 1,500 and 3,000 Chechens were missing as of this writing; many of them presumably languished in the Russian criminal justice system outside Chechnya, having been captured at checkpoints and Afiltered@ outside Chechnya. As of October 3, some 1,900 Russian soldiers were reported missing.

Journalists repeatedly came under fire in Chechnya. On August 6, at two separate checkpoints, helicopters fired on two groups of journalists, both of which were traveling in vehicles clearly marked ATV@ or APress.@ Fortunately no casualties resulted. Russian commanders repeatedly denied journalists access to towns and villages under fire, notably in Gudermes (December 1995) and Samashki and Sernovodsk (March 1996). Unknown assailants assassinated Russian journalists Nadezhda Chaikova in March and Nina Yefimova on May 8.

On January 9, Chechen rebels led by Salman Raduyev seized 2,000 hostages in Kizlyar, Dagestan, and herded them into the town=s hospital. They subsequently took 160 of these hostages as far as Pervomaiskoe and distributed the hostages among the houses where they had taken up defensive positions against Russian forces. Russian forces then bombed Pervomaiskoe, killing approximately twelve hostages. Within Chechnya, rebels held twenty-eight construction workers hostage in Achkoi-Martan in December 1995 and about eighty-four energy sector workers in Grozny in March. Chechen fighters as a rule did not refrain from taking up positions in residential areas, and their attacks on Gudermes and Grozny endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In a slight improvement over last year, the Russian military procuracy reportedly convicted twenty-seven servicemen (the vast majority of them draftees) for crimes against civilians, mostly non-combat-related murders and lootings. However, it failed adequately to investigate, let alone prosecute, the most glaring combat-related violations of humanitarian law.

Law enforcement officials in Moscow harassed and brutally attacked ethnic Chechens and other individuals from the Caucasus. On November 18, 1995, the Organized Crime Police (RUOP) beat and tortured Artem Arutunian, an ethnic Armenian, breaking two ribs. Police sent him to a hospital on November 20, apparently fearing he would die in their custody, and released him without charges four days later. Mr. Arutunian=s attempt to sue for damages ended in threats on his life. On December 11, RUOP severely beat Islam Gashayev in a Moscow apartment, causing him to lose consciousness, as they arrested him for the alleged illegal possession of a single bullet. A court later sentenced Gashayev to three years of imprisonment. In February, RUOP police broke into the apartment of Olga Kurbanova, arrested her Chechen brother-in-law Sultan, beat him, held him for three days, and left him on the snowy streets of Moscow. Moscow riot police even raided a tuberculosis hospital where Chechen familiesCwar refugeesCwere being treated and roughed up several patients on the pretext of a weapons search.

Rather than seeking to curb racially-motivated violence rampant in Moscow since 1993, the Moscow city government strengthened police discretion to verify passports and propiskas, which it uses overwhelmingly against dark-skinned people. In the two days following the July 10 and 12 bombing of Moscow trolley buses, police detained 5,770 individuals for violating city propiska and registration requirements. This extraordinarily high number suggests that many of the detentions were wholly arbitrary. Moreover, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov=s televised remarks, expounding a theory of Chechen involvement only two hours after the crime in which he Awarn[ed] the entire Chechen diaspora@ and promised to rid the city of Abums and organizations . . . connected to systems of southern structures,@ set the tone for AOperation Cleanse@C raids on markets, dormitories and the likeCand the implementation of presidential decree 1025 (see below), which followed. The beatings of dozens of Azerbaijanis during market raids caused at least two to be hospitalized during this period. In August, Mayor Luzhkov declared that Acrime in Moscow bears no ethnic factor,@ but failed to note that crime-fighting indeed does.

Presidential decree 1025, which was issued on July 10 as a crime-fighting measure, singled out Avagrants and beggars,@ enabled the Moscow city and regional governments to prolong such individuals= involuntary detention in Asocial rehabilitation centers@ for up to thirty days, and allowed the police forcibly to Aremove@ the homeless from Moscow. Under an August 27 mayoral decree implementing decree 1025, Moscow police renewed the practice, established in 1993, of detaining the homeless and shipping them out of Moscow on trains. The decree provoked confusion and criticism even from within the ranks of the police, but police nonetheless deported about 4,800 individuals within the first three weeks the decree was in force.

In a landmark April 4 decision, the Russian Constitutional Court found unconstitutional city ordinances in Moscow, Stavropol= Krai, St. Petersburg and other cities that require individuals to purchase propiskas. Despite the court=s decision, by November the Moscow and Stavropol governments had not altered their propiska rules and in addition continued to enforce regulations on temporary residence that caused undue hardship for refugees and migrants.

Ethnic tensions that flared against Chechens in Stavropol in the wake of the 1995 Chechen rebel raid on Budyonnovsk generally ebbed this year, but the Stavropol Krai and local village administrations failed to return at least twenty-one families who were deported from their homes in June 1995. In isolated areas, local Cossacks and police harassed and detained without warrant ethnic Chechens on suspicion of harboring weapons.

Moscow authorities sharpened their hostility toward refugees from the former Soviet Union. Police in Moscow regularly raided hotels where Armenian refugees had been granted housing after fleeing Azerbaijan in 1989 and 1990, allegedly to check identification and search out illegal weapons. In one such raid in July, Moscow riot police severely beat one Armenian man and sexually abused three Armenian girls. The Federal Migration Service (FMS) staunchly maintained its policy of refusing to settle refugees permanently in Moscow, in violation of the law on refugees and the Russian housing code. It presided over the evictions of refugee families from Moscow hotels and sent the former to reportedly uninhabitable quarters far from Moscow. When a facility director (an FMS employee) hired a gang of thugs to intimidate resident refugees into leaving, the FMS did not react. More positively, amendments to the 1993 law on internally displaced persons provided for refugee advocacy organizations to play a greater role in refugee policy-making.

Russia not only refused to grant political asylum to dissidents and politicians from countries of the former Soviet Union, it extradited them without the benefit of a court hearing. At least five individuals wanted in their home countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia), mostly on treason charges, were extradited between November 1995 and November 1996. Perhaps the most glaring case was that of Rahim Qaziyev (see section on Azerbaijan), whom Russian authorities extradited to Azerbaijan within three days of his arrest in Moscow in April. On July 25, Moscow police detained Davlat Khudonazarov, an opposition candidate in Tajikistan=s 1991 elections, in cooperation with an outdated Tajikistan Internal Ministry Awanted@ list. He was released the same day under tremendous public pressure.

The case of environmental researcher Alexander Nikitin underscored the pervasive powers the Federal Security Service (FSB) continued to exercise over freedom of information and due process. On February 6, the FSB arrested Nikitin, a retired Russian navy captain, and charged him with treason for having released state secrets. The charges sprang from a chapter he wrote on nuclear submarine accidents entitled AThe Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination@ for Bellona (a Norwegian environmental organization.) Due process violations marred the case from its very beginning and, although the FSB failed to provide evidence justifying his continued incarceration, the St. Petersburg district court refused to release him from pre-trial custody while he awaited trial.

In a positive development related to the Nikitin case, the Russian Constitutional Court in March struck down a provision of a 1995 law on state secrets that required defense lawyers in state secrets cases themselves to obtain security clearance.

Despite Russia=s admission into the Council of Europe, the Duma (parliament) failed to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty, and fifty-three convicts were executed as of October, a pace on par with 1995. The newly-adopted criminal code, which comes into force on January 1, 1997, continued to list seven capital offenses.

In compliance with Council of Europe requirements, the Council of Ministers issued a decree in June aimed at providing relief for the tens of thousands of individuals languishing in Russia=s uninhabitable pre-trial detention facilities. While the decree called for changes in the code of criminal procedure to facilitate the release of individuals whose case investigations had ended, it failed to address the need for wider change in the bail system, responsible for catastrophic overcrowding. These facilities have proven deadly: the nongovernmental Moscow Center for Prison Reform (MCPR) estimated that since 1994, 5,000 people have died while awaiting trial in Russia. In 1995, 242 people died in Moscow=s Butyrka pre-trial prison alone, which houses about 6,500 inmates. The MCPR attributed the rise in pre-trial deaths to the lack of medical attention. Not a single facility was held responsible for criminal neglect in relation to the deaths.

The new criminal code and code of criminal procedure ignored women=s need for justice in cases of sexual violence. It eliminated Article 118, which dealt with rape at the workplace, despite the widespread practice of sexual harassment in private enterprise. Moreover, the new code of criminal procedure retained articles permitting investigators and defense counsel to request character references for the victim and requiring her to confront her attacker in closed meetings at police headquarters. These practicesCalong with stonewalling and outright refusal on the part of police to process a victim=s reportCin part explained why only 2 to 3 percent of women who were raped reported the crime.

The Yeltsin administration began to accord needed attention to violence against women, doubtless the result of advocacy by a vibrant network of crisis centers. The government=s white paper on improving the position of women, issued in January, noted a sharp rise in domestic violence (a 100 percent increase in reported cases between 1993 and 1994) and acknowledged that the majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence refrain from reporting such violence to the police. However, it only vaguely stated the need to develop criminal and civil sanctions for violence against women, proffered no guidelines for improving police response, and neglected to call for the adoption of a law on domestic violence, various drafts of which repeatedly failed to clear the Duma Committee on Women, Family and Youth.

The central government=s careful control of the broadcast media overwhelmingly favored President Yeltsin during the presidential election campaign, but with very few exceptions journalists enjoyed wide freedoms in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Careful research by the Glasnost Defense Foundation, though, revealed that in the provinces, local governors maintained a tight grip on the press, dealing with their criticsCespecially those who investigate government corruptionCby threatening them or pressing libel or other fabricated charges.

The Right to Monitor

Russian human rights organizations operated mostly unfettered, and a June 13 presidential decree supported the human rights movement by, among other things, establishing within the Presidential Human Rights Commission a council of experts consisting of representatives of independent human rights organizations.

In Chechnya, however, Russian forces refused access to Sernovodsk and Samashki to human rights and humanitarian relief organizations and the press until up to ten days after it had completed mop-up operations. From January through the end of May, the Russian command denied the ICRC access to detainees, whereas in 1995 the ICRC had had access to nearly 700 detainees.

The Role of the International Community

The United Nations

The office of the secretary-general called the events in Chechnya Atragic,@ but maintained a hands-off policy with regard to human rights abuses by the government. On August 20, when Grozny was in flames and hundreds of thousands of civilians were fleeing in response to General Pulikovskii=s ultimatum to carpet-bomb the capital, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali=s office stated that Chechnya was an Ainternal matter of the Russian Federation,@ failing to use his authority to condemn the massive international humanitarian law violations that were clearly prohibited by United Nations treaties and, therefore, should never be considered solely an internal matter.

The Secretary General was mandated by the statement of the Chairman of the fifty-first session of the Commission on Human Rights to report on Chechnya to the commission=s following session. To request a report on a state with a permanent seat on the Security Council was exceptional in the commission=s practice. Notably, in its section devoted to NGOs, the report cited NGOs= documentation of human rights and humanitarian law violations.

The fifty-second session of the Commission on Human Rights again declined to adopt a resolution on Chechnya, opting instead for a chairman=s statement. The statement requested another report from the Secretary General and called for individual accountability for human rights and humanitarian law violations.

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its conclusions and recommendations to Russia=s periodic report, noted the rise in Aracist attitudes@ among local authorities, rightly connected racism with the propiska system, and expressed Agrave concern for the use of excessive and disproportionate force@ in Chechnya. However, it failed to emphasize the role played by the federal government in fostering racism.

The European Union

The European Union, Russia=s largest trading partner, focused its human rights concerns on Chechnya, albeit reactively, as distinct from its proactive 1995 approach. In November, just as the worsening hostilities in Chechnya pointed to the utter failure of a 1995 peace agreement, the European Parliament incomprehensibly approved ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the Russian Federation, which is conditioned on the respect for human rights and democratic principles. After squandering this important means of leverage, the European Parliament=s strongly-worded statements on Chechnya had little impact. In January and July, the European Parliament issued welcome resolutions warning Russia that its conduct would threaten its relations with the E.U., but arch responses by the Russian Foreign Ministry underscored the ineffectiveness of such resolutions without enforcement mechanisms.

An E.U. presidency statement deplored the loss of life and hostage-taking and called for an immediate end to fighting. On March 25, the E.U. strongly condemned attacks on civilians during the wave of fighting in Samashki and Sernovodsk. In sharp contrast, E.U. Commissioner Hans van den Broek chose not to use a high-profile visit to Moscow a week earlier to urge the Russian side to curb abuse in Chechnya. To its credit, the E.U. troika advanced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights chairman=s statement, despite strong pressure from the Russian delegation.

On September 19, the European Parliament called on Russia to release Alexander Nikitin pending trial and to explain the charges against him.


The OSCE Assistance Group (A.G.) in Grozny spoke out frequently and sharply against abusive conduct in the Chechnya war. Its March 25 report on human rights violations noted Chechen responsibility for taking civilian hostages and characterized Russian forces= attacks on towns and villages as Awarfare against the civilian population. . . in clear excess of what could be described as military necessary [sic].@ A.G. head Tim Guldimann, undaunted by repeated calls for his removal by Russian politicians and commanders, publicly raised concerns about such abuse on numerous occasions. In Vienna, however, the Permanent Council made no noticeable effort to pressure Russia on accountability for humanitarian law violations, squandering the unique influence the OSCE enjoys as the only intergovernmental organization with a mandate in Chechnya.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe=s vote to admit Russia four years after Russia=s initial application clearly reflected the primacy of the organization=s political concerns over its human rights mandate and unwittingly gave a stamp of approval to abusive laws and practices by the Russian government. The timing of the voteCjust after Russian forces had razed PervomaiskoeCdemonstrated that the council was set on admitting Russia with no regard for human rights abuses, thereby damaging the council=s credibility on human rights.

Upon Russia=s admission to the council, the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) immediately created an ad hoc committee on Chechnya with a mandate to monitor human rights in the region and to prepare a parliamentary hearing to facilitate negotiations. When the council attempted to stage the hearing in September, however, Russia pressured the council into cancelling it, emphasizing Chechnya as Aan internal matter of Russia.@ In September the council activated Order No. 508 against Russia, which monitors compliance with human rights obligations among new member states. It adopted a statement of concern on the Nikitin case in February, assigned a special rapporteur in September, and dispatched a mission to St. Petersburg to express its concerns jointly with the European Parliament to procuracy officials.

The United States

The Clinton administration periodically criticized Russian forces= conduct in the Chechnya war, yet maintained an obvious silence during President Yeltsin=s re-election campaign. In January, Secretary of State Warren Christopher accurately characterized Chechnya as Aone of the troubling signs of Russian reform under strain,@ and State Department Spokesman Nicolas Burns called the war a Agrave, grave mistake.@ Russian forces= operations in the months leading up to the June 16 and July 3 elections, however, not only failed to elicit a public response from the White House or State Department but failed to become an issue in President Clinton=s April 20 summit meeting with President Yeltsin and Warren Christopher=s March visit to Moscow. After Yeltsin=s re-election, the administration=s public statements toughened considerably; in a private letter in August, President Clinton urged President Yeltsin to call off the threatened total bombardment of Grozny.

The Clinton administration maintained a puzzling public silence on the Nikitin case. President Clinton squandered an excellent opportunity to raise it at the G-7 nuclear safety summit in Moscow in April, and Vice-President Gore likewise failed to raise the case publicly during his July visit.

The Clinton administration slashed Freedom Support Act aid to RussiaCwhich funded among other things useful democratization, rule of law, and human rights programsCby threefold in FY 1996, to U.S. $115 million. It played a central role in securing a colossal $10 billion IMF loan to Russia, the second-largest IMF undertaking in the institution=s history.