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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Human Rights Runaround

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For years, the victims of Russia’s counterterrorist operations and their families have sought justice through the only effective and legal channel, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Russian government loses roughly 95 percent of the cases that reach the court, the human rights watchdog of the Council of Europe. Russian cases made up nearly a third of the court’s case load last year, costing the Kremlin millions of euros in compensation for human rights violations.

Not surprisingly, the Kremlin views the European court as a thorn in its side — and not just a financial one. While stoically paying victims’ families to the last euro cent, the Russian government has ignored the court’s demands that authorities curb human rights abuses, fully investigate crimes and bring the culprits to justice. Noncompliance with the court could eventually cost the country its seat on the Council of Europe, but now the Kremlin has come up with a solution.

This month, the government announced a new bill that aims to create a venue for victims of counterterrorist operations or terrorist acts to seek compensation within the Russian justice system. The European court requires that plaintiffs exhaust all available domestic legal venues before submitting their cases in Strasbourg. But there are no guarantees so far that the Russian court would use the same criteria to accept cases or deliver the same compensation as its European counterpart. There are also concerns that victims would face longer delays and even more pressure from authorities to withdraw their cases.

Georgy Matyushkin, Russia’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights, believes that cases already submitted to the court would be retracted and sent back for review by Russian courts. This includes thousands of cases that deal with counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya. The law could also prevent any future cases from reaching the European court.

Simply put, the new law has the potential to cut off the world from knowing about the impunity and lawlessness in the North Caucasus.

It’s a sad coincidence that this bill was announced in the same week that Chechnya lost its most vocal human rights campaigner, Natalya Estemirova. Her murder severed the lifeline for many Chechens who depended on her to investigate abuses in the republic and report them to the world.

From the Grozny office of the human rights group Memorial, Estemirova painstakingly documented the worst of the worst crimes in Chechnya — abductions, torture and extrajudicial executions by federal and local security services and law enforcement, all of which occurred during and after the decade-long counterterrorist operation there.

Estemirova was the conduit of brutally honest information about gross human rights violations in Chechnya to the outside world. She documented and compiled evidence in many cases that ended up in the European Court. She also recorded ongoing violence and new cases, preparing to release another report on the human rights violations in Chechnya, in which she incriminated the Chechen authorities.

Out of concern for the safety of its staff in Grozny, Memorial suspended its work in Chechnya. The net effect of Estemirova’s murder has been to increase the isolation of Chechens, who face violence on a daily basis — human rights abuses that are condoned by the Kremlin and perpetuated by the authorities in Chechnya. The Strasbourg court remained one of their last outlets to inform the world about their grim situation.

According to Memorial, there are up to 5,000 people missing from the second Chechen war alone. So far, the European Court of Human Rights has made rulings on only several dozen of these cases because of a severe backlog.

By passing a law that would keep thousands of cases from potentially reaching the Strasbourg court, Russia would save millions of dollars in compensation that it wouldn’t have to pay. More important, however, the Kremlin is hoping that this law will allow Russia to be dropped from Council of Europe’s list of the worst human rights offenders.

Ella Asoyan is a program officer with the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus at Freedom House.