European Court Rules Against Moscow

A ruling in favour of Chechen civilians who say the Russian government infringed their human rights sets a strong legal precedent.

European Court Rules Against Moscow

A ruling in favour of Chechen civilians who say the Russian government infringed their human rights sets a strong legal precedent.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Chechens have hailed a landmark judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which for the first time issued a ruling obliging the Russian government to pay compensation to six civilians whose family members were killed by soldiers.

On February 24, the court found that Russia was in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (stipulating the right to life), Article 3 (freedom from torture or inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 13 (the right to seek remedy for injustice). It ordered the Russian government to pay a total of 135,000 euro plus costs to the plaintiffs.

The six cases, which were collected together in three judgements, all date back to the savage early phase of the second Chechen conflict in 1999-2000, and were filed in April and May 2000.

More than 100 other applications are waiting to be heard by the Strasbourg court. The plaintiffs are supported by the human rights organisation Memorial, which has provided lawyers in conjunction with the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Centre.

Shakhman Akbulatov, who heads Memorial’s office in Nazran, explained that they had been allowed to apply directly to Strasbourg because in 2000, there was no court system in Chechnya capable of hearing their cases.

“Then we got lucky,” he said, with a touch of irony. “Fortunately for us, when the European judges realised local courts would do everything in their power to close the files, they immediately accepted our lawsuits.”

“Many other Chechens whose next of kin had also been killed did not believe justice was possible, so they never went to court. Now we have set an example, showing them that it is possible to protect their interests in court.”

Akbulatov predicted the judgements would trigger a new rush of applications to the European court.

Zara Isayeva’s home village of Katyr-Yurt southwest of Grozny was shelled and bombed by the Russian military in February 2000. She was wounded, and her son and three nieces were killed.

The Russian government insisted it had been legitimately pursuing rebel fighters, but the court rejected its arguments and awarded Isayeva 43,000 euro in compensation.

Isayeva finds it hard to go about her daily homemaking chores because of the splinter she received in her spine.

“We got up early that day, started eating breakfast, but then heard the planes coming,” she recalled, her eyes beginning to redden. “My son told me not to worry; we could go and hide in the basement.”

“Then the planes began bombing and firing missiles at civilian homes and the mosque. We got into our Gazelle van, and then it was hit by a missile. My son Zelimkhan was killed instantly. My nieces Zarema, Heda and Marem were injured. They died in the hospital at Achkhoi-Martan. It was getting dark, but they wouldn’t let us through at the checkpoint. They gave us two hours to bury the dead.”

The family decided to sue the Russian government while they were living in a refugee camp at Malgobek, Ingushetia. They did not have death certificates, but they did have a statement from the hospital saying the children had died after being hit by shrapnel. When they showed this to an investigator from Rostov, they received a formal denial from the local Russian commander’s office that the village had been bombed.

Zara is pleased with the court ruling. The family needs the money because her husband recently suffered a stroke, her surviving 25 year-old son has no work, and her 18-year daughter, who still has a shrapnel scar on her cheek, has to stay at home because her father is afraid to let her out.

But Zara is happy above all with her moral victory. “We didn’t do this for money,” she said. “We can always make money. We just wanted to show what they’d done to us.”

Another plaintiff, Magomed Khashiev, an Ingush from Grozny, was not so pleased with the amount of damages awarded. “It’s only 15,000 euros for four people!” he exclaimed. “That’s not enough to pay for a decent funeral.”

Khashiev’s case involved four relatives – a brother, sister and two nephews – who were found dead with multiple stab and gunshot wounds in the Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny following a raid by Russian soldiers in January 2000.

He greeted the news of his court win with wariness. “They keep telling me I’ve won. But I’ve yet to see any proof of that, any kind of court paper.”

Some other Chechens share his apprehensions. “They said on television that a Russian citizen had won a case like ours,” Grozny resident Satsita Nikaeva, 39, told IWPR. “A year went by with no sign of money, so he went back to court about the money. And he was a Russian! What can we Chechens hope for?”

Russia has three months to appeal against the European Court ruling. If it does, the case will go before a Grand Chamber made up of 17 European judges. Pavel Laptev, Russia’s envoy at the Strasbourg court, said his government may file an appeal, according to Ria Novosti news agency.

Officials in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration reacted cautiously to news of the court ruling. Taus Jabrailov, who heads Chechnya’s National Council, told a press conference in Moscow that he was “glad that these people would receive a compensation for the abuse of their rights”, but he added, “On the other hand, it seems to me they had not exhausted all the opportunities to obtain redress in their home country.”

Jabrailov continued, “We are a democracy, so I see no harm in people seeking justice at the European Court. I see no political implications here.” But he went on to voice fears that, “some politicians are pursuing a political agenda here”.

Tatiana Lokshina of the International Helsinki Group applauded the precedent set by the Strasbourg ruling.

“The fact that these people will receive 15,000 or 20,000 euro in compensation from the government is not as important as the fact that justice has finally been done,” she said. “The Chechen people face constant abuse and blatant disregard for the law. They had lost all hope and thought the international community had given up on them. Now there is hope for them again.”

Lokshina said it was too early to celebrate, since, “A few European Court rulings will hardly make a difference. The rights of thousands of Chechen civilians have been abused.”

She noted that the European court has a hundred or more similar cases pending, with new ones arriving all the time.

“Unless Russia rethinks its policy in Chechnya and reins in its military and police, it will have to pay again and again – and pay with the loss of good will and damage to its international reputation, as well as in cash,” she said.

Fifteen of the dozens of lawsuits prepared by Memorial lawyers are now being considered by the human rights court in Strasbourg. The files deal a range of cases including mass killings in the Grozny suburb of Novye Aldy in February 2000, as well as allegations of torture and kidnapping.

Timur Aliev is IWPR’s Chechnya coordinator.

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