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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Blasts Boycotting NGOs

APThomas Hammarberg, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, visiting the village of Vedeno, 50 kilometers south of Grozny, on Wednesday.
On the eve of a human rights conference in Chechnya, a senior regional government official lashed out at NGOs that are boycotting the event for fear of lending legitimacy to the regime of acting President Ramzan Kadyrov.

"The human rights activists are acting like a sulking child who has been offended," Ziyad Sabsabi, the Chechen government's representative in Moscow, said Wednesday.

The conference in Grozny opens on Thursday under a cloud of criticism from its highest-profile participant, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, who on Tuesday accused Kadyrov's government of allowing the torture of prisoners.

None of the other major nongovernmental human rights organizations contacted on Wednesday for this article said they would be attending the conference.

In addition to Hammarberg, the only other leading human rights figure scheduled to attend the conference was Ella Pamfilova, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group, defended her organization's decision to stay away from the conference.

"You think that Mr. Kadyrov will stop torturing people just because I have spoken to him?" Alexeyeva said Wednesday. "I have cried with the relatives of the people he has tortured with his own hands. Meeting with a torturer is something I cannot allow myself to do as a human being."

Earlier this month, Alexeyeva and Lev Ponomaryov, another leading human rights activist, signed a letter that said the conference would use the "idea of human rights in the international arena to strengthen the legitimacy of the Chechen Republic's illegitimate regime."

A spokeswoman for Memorial, who declined to give her name, said the organization would not be represented at the conference.

At a meeting with Kadyrov in Gudermes on Tuesday, Hammarberg spoke of the conditions at a prison he had visited in the republic.

"I have met people who convinced me there is not only a system of bad treatment, but even torture," Hammarberg told Kadyrov, in comments reported by Reuters. "It's not just one or two cases, but a whole system," he said.

Sabsabi confirmed that Hammarberg would attend the conference despite his comments, adding that inviting the Council of Europe envoy "speaks to the seriousness with which the Chechen government is treating the problem of human rights."

"Yes, he will criticize Chechnya," Sabsabi said of Hammarberg. "We are prepared for that."

A spokeswoman at the Council of Europe said she did not know whether Hammarberg would take part in the conference because she could not reach him by telephone or e-mail, but representatives of several Moscow-based NGOs said they had been told that he would speak.

Neither Hammarberg nor his assistant could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Nikolai Silayev, a political analyst who specializes in North Caucasus affairs at Moscow State Institute for International Relations, dismissed the human rights conference as a charade.

"Chechnya desperately needs a better reputation," Silayev said. Silayev said that by holding the conference, Chechen authorities were looking to turn local human rights issues into national issues that should be tackled in Moscow.

"Whatever happens, it is unlikely to have much impact on the state of human rights in Chechnya," he added.

Other notable no-shows at the Grozny conference include Civic Assistance, Amnesty International and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

Alison Gill of Human Rights Watch said her organization would not attend the conference, but explained the decision primarily as a scheduling conflict. "Even so, I'm not sure this is the right way to address the problem," Gill said.

Vesta, an NGO that monitors population movements at two checkpoints between Chechnya and Ingushetia, said it had not heard of the conference, its program coordinator Saneta Korikova said by telephone from Ingushetia.

The Russian Charitable Fund Center for Peacebuilding and Community Development is also boycotting the event. "We do not see any reason [to go]," said Adlan Adaev, the center's director.

Staff Writer Kevin O'Flynn contributed to this report.