Crime without punishment?
(On the sixth anniversary of the artillery strikes on convoys of refugees)
Six days ago on the same day, 29 October 1999, in two different areas of Chechnya, near the village of Shami-Yurt and around the large village settlement of Goryacheistochnenskaya, Russian forces subjected convoys of refugees to artillery strikes and rocket attacks. Dozens of people, at minimum estimates, were killed or wounded. We have no possibility of establishing the exact number of victims. Among the dead were women and children.
These events cannot be viewed as a tragic accident. They were the logical consequence of a criminal system for planning and carrying out “counter-revolutionary operations”. This conclusion must be drawn from the Judgment of the Court in Strasbourg (cf. the appendix).
The European Court of Human Rights considered the complaints lodged by three women who had suffered as a result of a rocket attack near the village of Shami-Yurt. It found Russia guilty of violations of human rights and awarded the claimants compensation.
However it remains unclear whether, in implementation of the Judgments of the European Court, other measures will be taken, aimed at investigating the crimes committed and avoiding a repetition of them in the future.
A month before the tragic events, on 25 September 1999, telex messages were received in the Ministries and Departments of Internal Affairs of a number of territories and republics of the Northern Caucuses from the headquarters of groups of federal forces ordering that the administrative borders be closed to stop people leaving the Chechen Republic. Only the President of the Republic of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, refused to comply with these instructions. This resulted in a flow of people into Ingushetia fleeing the military action in Chechnya.
However on 22 October 1999, federal troops totally closed off the administrative border between Ingushetia and Chechnya and prohibited civilians from crossing it. At the same time, a large part of the republic not occupied by federal forces was subjected to artillery fire, bombing and rocket attacks.
On 26 October the Russian mass media reported that from 29 October “humanitarian corridors” would be open to enable civilian residents of Chechnya to cross either into Ingushetia, or into the northern areas of the Chechen Republic. Thousands of people decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
Some of the refugees considered it preferable to move to the northern areas already occupied by Russian troops. On that day at about nine oclock a convoy of refugees passed through the village of Petropavlovskoye and headed along the main road in the direction of the village settlement of Goryacheistochnenskaya, adjoining the district centre – the large village of Tolstoy-Yurt. Russian forces had already taken position on the outskirts of these two inhabited areas. When the car convoy came close to Goryacheistochnenskaya, it was without warning subjected to an artillery attack. The bombardment would appear to have come from a line of federal troops on a hill near the village of Vinogradnoye, approximately 5 kilometres to the North-East of Goryacheistochnenskaya.
Over a period of four hours the military did not let local residents who wanted to give help to those in need near the place where the convoy had been shot at. It was only after the head of the administration of the village settlement of Goryacheistochnenskaya, was able to reach an agreement with the forces that a truck with young people from the village of Tolstoy-Yurt could go to the aid of the convoy of refugees, and was able to bring out the wounded and some of the bodies of those killed.
However five terrified children, led by a lad of seventeen spent a further five days without food or warm clothes, hiding from the bombardment in the hills. It was only on 3 November that they ventured out into Goryacheistochnenskaya, where they were given first aid.
As a result of the bombardment no less than twenty three refugees died, and another seven died later from their wounds in hospital. Among the dead were at least five children. Several dozen people were wounded.
It is possible that the number of dead was higher. It was not possible to assess the exact number of casualties. Some of those killed were buried by local residents in the cemetery of the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, while the bodies of some victims were taken by their relatives to be buried in other inhabited areas of Chechnya. The bodies which they did not manage to drag from the place of the tragedy immediately were buried by the military together with the cars which had been destroyed. It was only on 2 and 3 June 2000 that one such “burial ground” was opened by the relatives of those killed.
The accounts of witnesses of the tragedy and of victims can be found on the website of the Organization “Memorial” at: http://www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/caucas1/msg/2005/03/m32956.htm
The second tragedy, which took place on the same day, near the village of Shami-Yurt, has received more publicity. This event continues to be talked about in large part due to the fact that it received consideration in the Court in Strasbourg.
Having learned from reports in the mass media that a “humanitarian corridor” through the control point “Caucuses-1” on the border with Ingushetia was to be opened on 29 October, many thousands of refugees decided to take this opportunity. Hundreds of cars amassed on the road there. However on that day permission was not in fact given to cross into Ingushetia (the passage of civilians on foot and in cars from Chechnya was restored only on 2 November 1999). The cars carrying refugees, which had gathered at the control point, began turning around and heading back along the road Rostov – Baku in the direction of Grozny. However, near the village of Shami-Yurt the convoy came under rocket fire. Dozens of people were killed or wounded.
A criminal case involving the death of people was launched only in May 2000, to be subsequently suspended “due to the absence of the elements of a crime (corpus delicti)” in the actions of the fighter pilots.
Three of the victims lodged a claim with the European Court of Human Rights. The claim was prepared and supported in the court by lawyers of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial”.
The first claimant had lost two children and a daughter-in-law, and she herself had received injuries. The second women had been seriously wounded, while the third victim claimed for psychological trauma and the destruction of property belonging to her family.
The Court in Strasbourg issued its decision in this case on 24 February 2005, to come into force on 6 July 2005 (cf. the website of the Organization “Memorial” at http://ehracmos.memo.ru/court). Russia was found guilty of having violated Articles 2 (“the right to life”) and 13 “the right to an effective remedy») of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Moreover, in accordance with the Judgment of the Court, in the case of one of the claimants, there had also been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the Convention (“protection of property”).
The Judgment of the Court in Strasbourg does not place in question the principle of legality and appropriateness of federal forces inflicting attacks on armed formations showing resistance. The European Court of Human Rights passed its judgment on the absence of adequate measures directing at protecting the civilian population while an operation was being carried out.
In its Ruling, the Court also mentions that Russia did not carry out an effective investigation into the incident. There had been unjustified delays in launching a criminal investigation. The Court noted “a number of elements which, taken together, create the strong impression that there was a series of serious and inexplicable omissions which occurred after the investigation had been begun”. Nor had efforts been taken to obtain information about the misinformation regarding “safe passage” or to establish who among the military and civic authorities had been responsible for safety of passage. Nothing had been done to ascertain the causes for the total lack of coordination between the public statements about “safe passage” for the civilian population and the clear ignorance of this on the part of the military who were planning and carrying out a task.
In the opinion of the Court, “these failings alone make it impossible to describe such an investigation as effective”. Nevertheless, the Courts Judgment cites other circumstances as well which testify to the total lack of will among the Russian authorities to investigate this case.
In October 2005 Russia paid the three claimants the amount in compensation awarded by the Court in Strasbourg.
The Russian States culpability has now been established beyond any doubt, and the State has paid the victims compensation. However, this after all was not the main objective of either the claimants or “Memorial”. By turning to the European Court of Human Rights we sought to bring an end to the practice of killing of Russian citizens going unpunished and to ensure that those guilty of committing war crimes are punished by Russian courts.
Otherwise the European Court will condemn violations of human rights, and the authorities in our country will pay out compensation, while happily continuing to violate human rights on a mass scale, viewing such compensation payments as a reasonably small (in terms of State revenue) tax on lawlessness and killings of their own citizens.
The implementation of the judgment of the Court in Strasbourg envisages a whole range of measures in addition to pecuniary compensation.
1. A translation of the Courts judgment and its summary should be made available and distributed through units of the armed forces and internal law enforcement bodies, as well as in the courts.
2. The criminal case launched in connection with this incident must be restarted, and those guilty must be brought to justice.
3. A review is needed both of anti-terrorist legislation, and of the regulations, instructions and other acts regulating the use of arms.
4. It is necessary to create a system of training in the appropriate standards of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and international humanitarian law, covering investigators, prosecutors, judges and military servicemen.
An unambiguous indication of the need for this package of measures is contained in the Memorandum sent by the representatives of the claimants to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe which, in accordance with its status, plays a supervisory role ensuring the implementation by countries of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (this can be found on the website of “Memorial” at: http://ehracmos.memo.ru/news/news-2005-10-06.html).