Gil-Robles Backs Chechen Referendum

APCouncil of Europe's Alvaro Gil-Robles meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov as he wrapped up his visit to Russia on Saturday.
Council of Europe human rights commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles endorsed a planned referendum in Chechnya as the beginning of a path to peace Saturday, but warned that Moscow must do more to stop military abuses in the region.

Gil-Robles said at a news conference that the March 23 constitutional referendum would be the beginning of a political resolution to the three-year war between separatists and federal forces.

"I am convinced that the continuation of war and the search for a military solution is absurd," he said. "For me holding the referendum is a beginning."

At the plebiscite, residents of Chechnya will be asked to approve an internal constitution that will be subordinate to federal law. Approval of the constitution would open the way to presidential and parliamentary elections.

Many human rights organizations have criticized the idea of the referendum, saying a fair election cannot be held in conditions of war. The Kremlin, which has ruled out negotiations with the rebels, portrays the upcoming vote as the centerpiece of a peace process.

Gil-Robles said Chechen refugees in Ingushetia should be given an opportunity to vote in the referendum.

The commissioner met Saturday with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Earlier in the week, he visited Chechnya and Ingushetia, where he met with Chechen refugees.

Gil-Robles condemned the "atmosphere of impunity" he said reigned among federal forces in Chechnya. He said cases of people disappearing during security sweeps had become more frequent since the deadly theater raid by Chechen rebels in Moscow in October.

In his meetings with Russian officials, Gil-Robles said he emphasized the need to punish troops who commit crimes against civilians. He said civilian and military prosecutors should intensify cooperation to investigate such cases.

In a discussion of Chechnya on NTV television Friday, Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov said that if the referendum is held "amid mop-up operations, at gunpoint and with a curfew in effect, nobody in Russia or the rest of the world will trust the results."

Also Friday, the military branch of the Supreme Court received the case of Colonel Yury Budanov, who was found mentally ill and not criminally responsible in the killing of Elza Kungayev, an 18-year-old Chechen woman, in 2000.

Her family and state prosecutors appealed the lower court's decision.

The court said the date for hearings will be announced later, Itar-Tass reported.