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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kovalyov Lambastes Chechnya Decrees in Court

President Boris Yeltsin's human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov testified at the Constitutional Court hearing Thursday on the legality of Yeltsin's orders to send troops into Chechnya, describing the president's actions as "criminal negligence and a constitutional crime."

But Kovalyov's emotional speech may have helped Yeltsin representatives at the hearing establish a line of questioning that centered on political reasons for the campaign and the way it was conducted rather than on whether Yeltsin had the legal right to start it.

Kovalyov himself fell into line with this approach, dismissing the presidential decrees and the government resolutions, on the basis of which the troops were sent in, as "not only hypocritical, but simply mocking in the light of what followed them.

"Because of their hypocrisy, an analysis of whether they conform to the constitution is altogether pointless," Kovalyov said.

The campaigner spent over two hours on the witness stand, to which he was summoned from the hospital, where he is being treated for a heart condition. Yeltsin's representatives questioned him on specific human rights abuses before and during the campaign, prompting legislators presenting the case against Yeltsin to complain of what they called the court's "bias" toward the presidential side.

"I see a certain bias in the presiding judge's conduct of this trial," said Yelena Mizulina, a Federation Council deputy and constitutional lawyer. "He is not interrupting the presidential side's line of questioning concerning the factual side of the war, whereas the Constitutional Court is obliged by law to concentrate on the legal side. The presidential side has no arguments except those of expediency, and it is given every chance to present them."

However, in their questions some of the court members indicated that the factual side of the war may indeed affect their final judgment. In view of that, Kovalyov may have won over some of the judges by his revelations.

Kovalyov quoted Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev as telling him in a private conversation that "We got ourselves into a mess in Chechnya.

"We were convinced at the Security Council that it would be an almost bloodless blitzkrieg that would be over in eight days," Kovalyov quoted the minister as saying. "That prediction turned out to be wrong. But politically, it is totally impossible to correct that mistake because if we admit it, someone will have to be held responsible, and the president will top that list.

"If that happens, he will not be re-elected, and we cannot allow that because then Zhirinovsky will come to power."

Though court chairman Vladimir Tumanov asked Kovalyov to stay seated during the questioning, Kovalyov stood throughout the hearing, answering questions sometimes with unconcealed irritation.

"Are you aware of cases when residents of certain sections of Grozny paid the Chechen fighters to leave their areas alone, and there was consequently no fighting there?" Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai asked Kovalyov.

"No, I am not aware of such cases, and I daresay you are not aware of them either," the human rights commissioner countered tersely. "But I am aware of cases when the local population asked the fighters to leave, and then, after the federal troops and special forces entered the village, marauding, plunder, rape and murder began there."

But Kovalyov's vehemence appeared to irritate some of the judges. Judge Marat Baglai reprimanded the human rights activist for calling Yeltsin a "constitutional criminal" and Yeltsin's staff "hypocrites."

At the same time, other judges seemed swayed by Kovalyov's argument that the implementation of the decrees is important for their assessment.

"We understand that the president's intention was to maintain Russia's territorial integrity, but can his decrees be viewed as constitutional in the light of the consequences they entailed?" Judge Viktor Lugin asked Kovalyov.

Tumanov said that after Thursday's session, all that remained for the court was to hear the sides' concluding statements. They will be heard Monday.

Shakhrai said after the hearing that the opposite side had presented him with "no surprises" and that he was confident of winning.

The presidential side's strategy is to use persistent questioning to reveal inconsistencies in the statements of experts who call the war illegal. Parliamentary representatives, on the other hand, will try to draw the judges' attention to legislation on the use of armed forces, which they claim does not allow the president to use the regular army in domestic conflicts.

"The presidential side may win, but then Russia will lose," Mizulina said. "The court must decide whether the constitution is only written for ordinary people or if the authorities have to abide by it, too."