Toita Estamirova. Source: Estamirov family. It had been months since Russian riot police shot five members of Ruslan Yandarov’s wife’s family, including a pregnant woman and a one year-old boy, in a bloody rampage in Grozny, Chechnya. The incident had shocked many in Europe and the US, eliciting a reluctant promise from Russia to investigate.
Yet, Ruslan told me, Russian investigators had never even bothered to contact the family, take statements from the people who discovered the bodies, or collect bullets and other evidence from the crime scene. A gentle, soft-spoken lawyer in his forties, Ruslan was dejected. The thought that this horrific crime would go unpunished was too much to bear.
It was the year 2000 and I was working at Human Rights Watch in Moscow. Along with our partners at Memorial, a Russian rights group, we had documented several massacres, including that of Ruslan’s in-laws, widespread torture, and indiscriminate bombardments of civilians by Russian forces in the early months of the Chechen war. While Russia had initially denied all allegations, the international outcry had been so strong that it eventually felt compelled to promise to investigate.
The story of what happened next and the eventual outcome all these years later is a cautionary tale both for those responsible for the devastating crimes in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere and the international community trying to stem the abuses. Sooner or later, the truth will come out but real justice may be elusive.
We were skeptical of those promises from Russia and decided to investigate its investigation. So I traveled to Ingushetia, the region neighboring Chechnya, a few months later to go back to the same people we had interviewed previously about the most egregious incidents that had occurred. Each person I visited on that trip gave me an account similar to Ruslan’s. No, federal investigators had not contacted them. No, nobody had come to take their testimony. No, nobody had come to collect evidence from the crime scene.
It became crystal clear that Russia had not been sincere about its investigations. It had not even taken the most elementary steps.
That finding was not unexpected. What did surprise me, however, was how forcefully many of the families I interviewed spoke about their desire for justice, even if they were also fearful of retaliation. None believed Russia would ever open an effective investigation, but they had high hopes for the European Court of Human Rights, which Russia had recently joined. I was also struck by the strength of the evidence many of the families had showing that government soldiers or police had committed the abuses. In one case, a mother showed me video of a Russian general ordering the execution of a young Chechen who had subsequently vanished without a trace.
But how could these men and women, many of whom had lost their homes, were living in temporary accommodations, and had no jobs, possibly succeed in holding Russia accountable for its abuses? The European Court, despite its promise, seemed impossibly remote.
As it turned out, there was a way. An organization I helped found after that trip, Russian Justice Initiative (now Justice Initiative), recently won its 200th case in the European Court on behalf of victims of abuses in Chechnya and neighboring regions, including Ruslan’s family. Memorial, which started helping Chechens seek justice around the same time, has won another 73 cases. The court has now considered the complaints about abuses by federal forces of more than 1,000 individual Chechens and has ordered Russia to pay more than 20 million euros in compensation to these plaintiffs.
Justice, however, remains incomplete. Being a civil court, the European Court cannot hold individual wrongdoers to account and, while Russia has paid compensation as ordered, it has stubbornly refused to prosecute the people responsible for these abuses. In the case of Ruslan’s family, for example, the unit responsible for the killings is known but has not been investigated. Russia has also refused to make the systematic changes that could prevent these abuses from happening again.
Even so, for the plaintiffs this is a remarkable achievement. A thousand courageous but powerless Chechen men and women have thwarted the powerful Russian state’s efforts to sweep its abuses in Chechnya under the rug. Thousands of pages of court documents will ensure that Chechnya will forever be a stain on Russia’s record. But for Ruslan and many other plaintiffs, perhaps the most significant victory is the vindication of their loss by an international court.