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Chechnya: the torchings

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It happened on a Friday. Armed men in camouflage uniforms drove up to Nazir's house in a small village in Chechnya's mountainous Vedeno district. They turned Nazir's home upside down. Nazir had some wooden boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. Nazir was scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge of the large group, approached him, and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house."

Nazir's nephews have been allegedly involved in Chechnya's still smoldering insurgency for almost a decade, and Nazir knew that he was now going to pay the price for failing to convince them to surrender.

To be fair, the serviceman Nazir thought to be in charge understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from higher up. The house was to be burned. But Nazir proposed a compromise. He said to the commander, "An excavator operator lives nearby. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him?" Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall that was less than one meter from his neighbor's house. Then Nazir's house was set on fire. Everyone, including Nazir, stood by and watched the flames rise.

Nazir and his family are now homeless. At least two dozen other families in different districts of Chechnya have had their houses torched in 2008 and 2009 by local Chechen law enforcement personnel to punish them because their relatives are allegedly insurgents, and to coerce the insurgents to surrender. This report documents these episodes of collective punishment.

Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya has subsided and the capital, Grozny, has been largely rebuilt. However, abuses such as torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial executions persist (albeit on a smaller scale), and impunity for past and ongoing abuses is rampant. The perpetrators of ongoing violations are mainly law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighboring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically. The insurgency has a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Working toward those objectives, insurgents have been using a variety of violent tactics, including killings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.

The perpetrators of these and other crimes must be held accountable under the law and in accordance with international fair trial standards. However, unlawful tactics used by insurgents can in no way justify the use of similar tactics by government forces fighting against the insurgency, particularly burning of houses and other types of persecution against families of alleged rebel fighters.

Human Rights Watch is aware of 25 cases of punitive house burning that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel between June 2008 and March 2009 in seven districts of Chechnya: ten in Kurchaloi, six in Shali, four in Vedeno, two in Naur, and one each in Shatoi, Achkhoi-Martan, and Grozny districts. Also, just several days prior to the release of this report Human Rights Watch learned of yet another, most recent case of house-burning. On June 18, around 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen reportedly burned two homes belonging to elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, in the Gudermes district.

All the affected families, whose homes were burned, have among their close relatives alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home "from the woods" and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so. Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and therefore appeared to have been motivated by retribution.

Notably, in 2008 high-level Chechen officials, including President Kadyrov, made public statements explicitly stating that the insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. While such statements may not constitute direct instructions for law enforcement agents to destroy houses of insurgents' families, they encourage such actions by police and security personnel by sending a strong message that lawless, punitive actions will be tolerated or condoned.

Thirteen episodes of punitive house-burning are documented in detail in this report. These cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel-often masked-arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.

The assailants torched the houses methodically and unhurriedly. They looked around the inside of the house, piled furniture together, put easily flammable objects on top, doused gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. They would stay for up to an hour watching the fire spread, to make sure the residents or their neighbors did not attempt to put it out before the house was well ablaze.

The victims were generally told in clear terms that complaining about the house-burning would lead to further repercussions. Consequently, only in three cases known to Human Rights Watch did victims file complaints with the authorities. In another three cases the victims agreed to have Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO working in the North Caucasus, raise their cases with competent authorities.  At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness. At this writing not a single criminal case into the allegations of house-burning in Chechnya has been opened by the law enforcement authorities.

The Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. Indeed, in more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Russia responsible for serious violations in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told Human Rights Watch that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm. This situation cannot be tolerated, and calls for prompt and effective measures.

Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to collective punishment practices, including house-burnings, against families of alleged insurgents, and ensure meaningful accountability for perpetrators of these and other human rights violations.  Accountability includes ensuring effective implementation of ECtHR rulings on Chechnya cases. Other governments, in particular European Union states and the United States, should use multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues to call on Russia to stop collective punishment practices, and put an end to impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Methodology

This report is based primarily on field research conducted in close cooperation with Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, in March and April 2009 during two Human Rights Watch missions to Chechnya. In the course of these missions, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited and photographed house-burning sites and interviewed 37 individuals, including owners and former residents of homes destroyed by house-burning, and witnesses of the house-burnings. We also interviewed 14 human rights activists, lawyers, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. Field research was conducted in the Achkhoi-Martan, Kurchaloi, Naur, Shatoi, Shali, and Vedeno districts of Chechnya, where the burnings had taken place, as well as in Grozny, where some victims, witnesses, activists, and officials were interviewed. Several interviews were done in Moscow or by phone from Moscow. Sites of house-burnings were identified based on information received from Chechnya-based human rights activists as well as from some victims of house-burnings who happened to be aware of other similar cases. All interviews were conducted in Russian by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.

Also, Human Rights Watch examined official documents, prosecutor's office decrees, public statements by Chechen officials, analytical reports published by Russian human rights groups, and media accounts. Transcripts of televised statements by President Kadyrov and several other high-level Chechen officials were translated by a native speaker of Chechen.

The present report documents only those house-burning cases for which we were able to interview victims and witnesses to the burnings and make our own site visits.

The vast majority of those interviewed for this report were deeply concerned about possible repercussions for their families and asked Human Rights Watch researchers not to use their real names. Consequently, we chose to assign pseudonyms to victims and witnesses quoted in the report who gave us their names (the pseudonyms were chosen randomly from a comprehensive list of Chechen names at a specialized website http://www.n-a-m-e-s.info/dat_imya/chechenu.htm).


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