Make Russia responsible for its victims

War: Moscow must not only aid the many injured and displaced Chechens but also prosecute members of its armed forces who tortured civilians, a rights advocate says.

April 02, 2000|By Doug Ford

OVER THE past four years, there have been many reports that Russian forces inflicted severe human rights violations on the civilians of Chechnya.

In February, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sought to measure the severity and extent of the alleged abuses by sending a team to interview refugees in Ingushetia, the Russian republic bordering Chechnya to the west. Dr. Ramin Ahmadi, Dr. Michael Vassiliev and I arrived there one month after Russian forces made a stern promise to raze Grozny, the Chechen capital, brick by brick.

The Russians fulfilled that promise and sent more than 180,000 people streaming into Ingushetia, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. So far, the war in Chechnya has left 250,000 civilians homeless.

Though the displaced nearly doubled the size of Ingushetia's population, Russian and local authorities built camps for only 10 percent of the dislodged Chechens.

Scattered across the small republic, Chechen families were simultaneously the witnesses and the evidence of crimes committed with impunity by Russian forces against noncombatants. PHR conducted a random survey that confirmed widespread reports of war crimes and human rights abuses. Of the first group of 326 Chechens surveyed, 96 percent said they were driven out of Chechnya by the Russian military. More disturbing, we found that 44 percent of the respondents said they witnessed civilians being killed by Russian forces, and 4 percent reported that a family member had been tortured.

Ostensibly to screen out suspected rebels, Russian forces established filtration camps. But these sites, such as the notorious Chernokozovo camp, functioned without international oversight, and extreme brutality was inflicted on male and female civilians whose only crime, most often, was escaping the deadly crossfire of rebel and Russian forces.

Ahmadi and Vassiliev gathered testimony from ordinary people who had been detained at these camps; most had been subjected to numerous beatings, some to gas torture and electric shock.

Our team heard the story of a man who was detained while attempting to find baby formula for his newborn. He left his wife -- who was unable to lactate (a condition afflicting new mothers subjected to the stress of the war) -- to find a market selling the formula. The man was detained at a checkpoint and sent to Chernokozovo camp for days of ferocious beatings.

In another case, a survivor of Chernokozovo's brutality was examined by Ahmadi three days after his release. Ahmadi concluded that the man had had classic symptoms of torture: a broken nose, bruised ribs, muscle swelling and pain on the soles of his feet, caused by beatings. Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has an unfulfilled obligation to these displaced persons and their homeland. Foreign intergovernmental and nongovernmental agencies have gained access to the region and can help provide basic nutritional assistance and shelter. In the end, however, only the Kremlin can hold members of Russia's Interior Ministry and federal armed forces accountable for what our survey clearly demonstrates they perpetrated -- war crimes.

It is the responsibility of Putin's government to see that those who prosecuted this campaign are brought to justice. The international community should pressure Russia to provide compensation for the lives that this conflict has irrevocably scarred and destroyed.

Doug Ford is senior program associate at Physicians for Human Rights, a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

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