Restore peace and justice to Chechnya
More than 100 members of Britains political and cultural elite have written to President Vladimir Putin of Russia urging him to use his final year as president to restore "peace and justice" to Chechnya.
The open letter sent to The Independent is signed by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, his predecessor, Charles Kennedy, the Conservative former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the novelist and broadcaster Lord Bragg, the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard and the philosopher Alain de Botton.
"We can no longer remain silent in the face of the persistent human rights abuses and war crimes in Chechnya," says the letter.
"Despite overwhelming evidence from human rights organisations about continuing war crimes in Chechnya and the silencing of human rights defenders and independent journalists, the international community has remained silent.
"It is part of our intention to bring the horrific situation in Chechnya to wider public attention, and exhort President Putin to take whatever action he can to restore peace and the rule of law in Chechnya."
The letter was initiated by the Chechnya Peace Forum, whose director, Ivar Amundsen, was a friend of the murdered Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed abuses by the security forces in the separatist Russian republic.
Its publication today marks the beginning of President Putins final year in office. Unless the Russian constitution is changed, he is bound to step down in May next year after presidential elections, although Russian analysts expect a close ally to succeed him as head of state.
Mr Putin clearly hopes the election of his thuggish protégé Ramzan Kadyrov will silence the critics of his "pacification" policies in Chechnya, which has been shattered by two independence wars with Russia.
But the letter points out that Mr Kadyrovs presidency, for the vast majority of Chechen civilians, is "little more than a regime of fear and oppression".
Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that while the West should recognise that the future of Chechnya was a "genuine internal problem", "the methods, including the war itself and the denial of human rights, are appalling".
While President Putin had restored a "large measure" of self-respect and stability to Russia and had seen the economy benefit from buoyant oil and gas prices, "on the negative side, he has been moving towards a more authoritarian style of government".
Sir Malcolm, who served as Foreign Secretary under John Major, complained that Western governments had ignored the well-documented human rights abuses in Chechnya in which abductions and detentions without charge are common and torture is widespread.
"Putin sought to use the US-led war on terror as a reason why he expects the US and the West to turn a blind eye to what hes doing," he said. "But its difficult to see the credibility in the claim that the Chechens are part of al- Qaida. Even in the Cold War and in the days of the Soviet Union, it did not stop us raising human rights issues with the Kremlin."
The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "This is a murderous war on Europes doorstep with barely a word of protest from either the US and UK or the European Union." He said President Putin and the hand-picked pro-Russian Chechen President had done nothing to address the root causes of the conflict, while the Russian President had "direct responsibility for much of the bloodshed." Mr Putin, as Boris Yeltsins prime minister, launched the second Chechen war in 1999 after a series of bombings, blamed on Chechens, killed 300 people in Russia. Mr Putin, riding a wave of popularity thanks to the war, became President months later.
Other signatories of the letter to Mr Putin include academics and politicians from all parties, among them the Labour peer Lord Judd, who has visited Chechnya many times.
Some of the signatories
Ivar Amundsen, director Chechnya Peace Forum
Sir Tom Stoppard
Alain de Botton
Sir Menzies Campbell MP
Charles Kennedy MP
Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP
Dr Brendan Simms