U.N. rights official reports seeing abuses in Chechnya

Russia denies severity, calls problems inevitable

April 04, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Frustrated because of what she couldn't see and devastated by what she did see, the United Nations' chief human rights official returned from Chechnya yesterday, saying she had confirmed reports of serious human rights violations.

In Moscow, Mary Robinson was met by volleys of denial. The interior minister lectured her, she said. An official news agency presented a voluminous "white paper" arguing that Russia's conduct in Chechnya was inevitable. And intellectuals held a bellicose news conference, telling the rest of the world to mind its business.

For months, human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been accusing Russia of using indiscriminate force in its war against the separatist republic. Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, set out Saturday to investigate accusations that included summary executions, rape and looting.

"It does make a difference to have the direct contact," she said last night, "and probably the most important thing was to get very authentic accounts from eyewitnesses of some of the worst atrocities that I had already got a lot of written material about and that really confirmed in my view without any doubt that there is a serious pattern of human rights violations."

She said her visit to the bombed-out Chechen capital, Grozny, made a deep impression on her.

"I was very devastated by the situation in Grozny itself and the very poor circumstances of those whom I met living in Grozny," she said.

Earlier, her spokesman, Jose Diaz, said Robinson had been frustrated because Russian authorities would not permit her to travel wherever she wished.

Robinson turned down a visit to a recently prettified detention center and asked to go to others. Finally, her guides took her to one.

"It turned out they were holding two middle-aged women for looting," Robinson, a former president of Ireland, told the Irish Times. "I found this so poignant because one of the worst and persistent allegations against the OMON [police commandos] is blatant looting, terrible pillage and looting, piling it into the back of armored vehicles and driving away with people's possessions.

"And here were these sad, terrified women who were accused of looting and had been in this darkened cell -- there was no light in it -- for six days, with nothing, in very primitive conditions."

After her return from Chechnya, she said, she met with Russian officials, including Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, who supervises the OMON, the commandos accused of many of the violations.

The meeting was unproductive, she said.

"He lectured me for most of the time. I tried to say, `Look, I am ' And he would say, "No, no, I want to say this .' Eventually, I did not have time to put the questions, which I regret."

Tomorrow, Robinson expects to report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also has been investigating Chechnya and considering sanctions against Russia.

Last week, just before her visit, Russian authorities arrested a colonel and charged him with raping and killing a Chechen woman. Human rights activists responded that hundreds of war crimes have been committed by Russian soldiers and that one prosecution won't address the problem.

Yesterday's official white paper response to world criticism, which can be found in English on an official Web site, www.infocentre.ru- /eng, begins with events in 1657, referring to a letter from a Chechen leader asking Czar Alexei for Russian citizenship for the Chechen people.

It ends with pictures of Red Cross workers killed in a Chechen village after the end of the last war with Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996. The text blames the current violence on the lawlessness that enveloped Chechnya after 1996, when Russian soldiers retreated, leaving a destroyed region behind.

"Russians saw now there was no other way to stop crime," the report says. "Russia had been amazingly tolerant of bandits as they were raping women and kidnapping children, Christian priests, federal presidential envoys and Interior Ministry bigwigs. Russia was tolerating it all with Christian humility out of a sense of guilt it developed with the first Chechen campaign."

Alexei Volin, head of the Ria Novosti official press agency, said the situation in Chechnya has not changed in 2,000 years, quoting earlier generations as saying Chechens have always had a penchant for robbery and evil temper.

"The military operation was a necessary stage in order to clear the decks," he said, "but to change the consciousness and civilize the republic will take years and years."

At another news conference, film director Nikita Mikhalkov said Russia is behaving better and suffering more in Chechnya than the West did in Kosovo.

Alexander Gradsky, a singer and composer, said Russia's mistake was pulling out of Chechnya without subduing it in 1996.

"But what is the conclusion?" he asked. "Let us stop halfway again? Let us allow it to happen again?

"We just can't do these things in any other way. We are only able to behave like a bull in a china shop. We smashed everything in our way, but at least we cleared the decks."

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