Immediately after yesterday’s announcement of the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in two Chechnya-related cases, press conferences were held in the Russian and Chechen capitals by representatives of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, who gave their assessment of the event.
At the Moscow press conference, Oleg Orlov, the chairman of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, announced that if today’s verdicts – one on Novye Aldy and the other on the “Musayeva and Others” case – are counted, 14 rulings on Chechen cases have now been issued by the European Court of Human Rights.
Orlov said that Memorial had taken an interest in the Novye Aldy case right from the beginning. Back in 2000 it had published a special report on these events, entitled The Mop-Up. Novye Aldy, February 5, 2000.Â “Incidentally, this report was also the basis of the evidence presented at Strasbourg, because to this day it is the most accurate description of the facts. The materials of Â the investigation that was conducted by the Russian authorities remain classified,” he added.
According to Memorial board member Alexander Cherkasov, it had been possible to establish that that the mop-up in Novye Aldy was carried out by troops of the St. Petersburg OMON. “There was even one suspect, Sergei Babin, but he disappeared. In the same way as Ulman and his fellow officers disappeared. The Sentence Enforcement Office is likewise unable to state the whereabouts of Colonel Budanov, or of those who killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and his young son in Qatar.”
Memorial lawyer Natalya Kravchuk added that there were several interesting features in the Court’s ruling. “They include the recognition of the right of the victims’ relatives, who witnessed their deaths, to compensation for mental suffering. It appears that in the course of the Chechnya-related cases there has been a development in jurisprudence. These cases set precedents which will benefit not only ourselves, but also human rights defenders from other countries.”
A press conference on today’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the cases of residents of the Chechen village of Novye Aldy was held in the cramped quarters that house the Grozny offices of the Memorial Human Rights Centre.
More than thirty people gathered in one of the airless rooms. Before the conference began, human rights workers functioning in the capacity of organizers arranged the screening of a video made by a Novye Aldy resident just a few days after the “mop-up” that had taken place there on February 5, 2000. The film, which required no commentary, showed the bodies of civilians – mostly very elderly – who had been shot at close range.
An elderly woman was seen standing over the body of a man who had been shot in the head. As she wept, she said: “They stank of vodka. They aimed their automatic weapons at my son. I begged them : â€˜Don’t shoot, he’s my only son, he has six young children.’ They took all our valuables and said we still owed them another gram of gold. My granddaughter ran and fetched two of her father’s gold teeth… It wasn’t Chechen terrorists who were killing us – it was Russian terrorists. ”
The camera showed several corpses which had been piled together in one of the unheated rooms. In the adjoining room a group of men were performing the ritual ablution of the body of a man who had been shot at close range, half of his head blown off. Residents were interviewed, saying that they hoped the authorities would come and see what had happened and punish those responsible for shooting their relatives. None of them could have suspected that seven and a half years later, in the far-off city of Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights would find Russia guilty of the murder of five of those people.
After the twenty-minute film was over, Memorial workers whose efforts had done most to bring the cases to justice spoke to the audience and took questions from journalists.
Natalya Estemirova, a Memorial worker, visited Novye Aldy just one month after the “mop-up” there.”I came to Aldy in March 2000. At first I couldn’t see any people, but when I caught the smell of animal manure I realized there was life there. It was mainly because of those cows and sheep that many of the village’s inhabitants had stayed there, and they paid a high price for it. When I talked to them they showed me a little kitten which they said drank the blood of dead people. None of them felt any antipathy for the creature, unlike the hatred they felt for those who had spilled their blood on February 5. They said that such crimes must not go unpunished, and that all the perpetrators must face the most severe penalties. They were confident that sooner or later this would happen.”
Usam Baisayev, one of the authors of the book The Mop-Up. Novye Aldy, February 5, 2000, which was published seven years ago, explained that this crime could not have been committed without the sanction of the very highest authorities : “At about the same time that this massacre took place in Aldy, similar crimes were committed in several places in Chechnya. Members of the Zubayev family were murdered in the village of Alkhan-yurt, and the Tangiyevs, husband and wife, were shot in the village of Katayama. It’s no coincidence that they were the parents of Shamil Tangiyev, head of Memorial’s Grozny branch.”
Baisayev says that premeditated crimes of this type also take place elsewhere in the world.”For example, on Oct. 23, 1993, a Croatian unit raided the Bosnian village of Stupni-do, where more than 500 people lived. 37 civilians were killed as a result of the raid. This case is striking, as it bears a complete similarity to what happened in Aldy. It was the same thing – unjustifiable atrocities and violence by the military. However, the people who were guilty of the massacre got their due. Ivica Rajic, the officer in command of the detachment, was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment by the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the group commander, Tihomir Blazkic, got 45 years. But we see no such desire on Russia’s part to punish those who are guilty. On the contrary, when they finally did manage to establish the identity of one of the people involved in the “mop-up” at Aldy, an OMON officer named Banin from St Petersburg – he escaped, and is now a fugitive.”
Memorial lawyer Kirill Koroteyev was directly involved in bringing the Novye Aldy cases to the European Court. He says that the brutality of the crime committed at Aldy makes one’s hair stand on end :
“As someone who works mainly in Moscow, it means a lot to me to come to Grozny and speak at an event like this. The crime that was committed at Aldy was not only a violation of the right to life, but also a crime against humanity, so if Russia doesn’t catch these criminals and bring them to justice, then international law makes it possible for another state to do so, as crimes of this type have are not limited by time or territoriality. These video materials remind us of the words of Robert Jackson, United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials : â€˜Our proof will be disgusting and you will say I have robbed you of your sleep.'”
One journalist asked if there had been any pressure from the military or other organizations in the investigation of the Aldy tragedy. Natalya Estemirova said that there had : “Aset Chadayeva, the main witness in the case, had to leave Russia, and was granted political asylum in the United States. And the Aldy residents who were not afraid to be applicants to the European Court are heroes. Now we are certain that no large-scale crime of this kind will take place in Chechnya. Not because the generals have become kinder or because policies have changed. No. Just because people themselves will not let it happen and will be more aware, and will seek justice by all lawful means.”
After the press conference many Novye Aldy villagers expressed a common view that they should also apply to the European Court and seek justice.
A Memorial worker who wished to remain anonymous noted that the number of applicants with various complaints against the security forces has recently declined sharply. In his opinion, this is due to the fact that the crimes have mainly been committed by local security officials, who intimidate the relatives of those who have been killed or abducted, threatening all the members of the families with extremely unpleasant consequences if they apply to human rights workers.