Russia, human rights and failure in Chechnya
Human rights are not well protected in Russia. Arbitrary arrests, torture, persecution of journalists and state-sanctioned murders are all too common. As Russian President Putin begins a state visit to Italy, human rights groups want Italian leaders to raise the issue of human rights violations and not only focus on the economy. The crisis in Chechnya runs the risk of turning into an Islamic revolt affecting the entire northern Caucasus.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a state visit to Italy today and various human rights organisations have called on Italian leaders to include human rights on the agenda of bilateral talks rather than leave the centre state to economic issues. In particular, they want the human rights situation in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus be discussed because of the region’s danger of becoming a power keg.

Amnesty International and other groups have asked Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema to raise the issue of human rights when they meet President Putin. And the list of the list of human rights violations in Russia’s Caucasus region is very long. For example, torture against prisoners has become commonplace and the courts have done nothing to stop it. Dissidents and journalists have been frequently and arbitrarily arrested. Some have been murdered like investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot dead on October 7, 2006, after publishing several articled documenting human rights violations in Chechnya.

In Chechnya and the northern Caucasus, the local population has been subjected all too often to police brutality (in April 2006 special police units violently dispersed some 500 people demonstrating against corruption by Dagestan authorities, killing one man named Murad Nagmetov).

Similarly, the right to free expression and the right to assembly have been restricted. In October 2006 a Chechnya-based human rights watchdog, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was shut down on the grounds that it violated a law banning offences against public decency and religious and ethnic beliefs; for this reason its executive director, Stanislav Dmitrievskii, was sentenced to two years on the grounds of inciting racial hatred after he published articles written by non violent Chechen separatists.

Across Russia racist incidents involving foreign students, refugees, Jews and Roma, including murders, have risen whilst the authorities have done very little against them. In March 2006, for instance, seven defendants accused of hooliganism were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 5 years for assaulting and killing a 9-year-old Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultonova.

The situation in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus is particularly appalling. Arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture are commonplace. The net result has been that the violent repression of local autonomist aspirations have generated a movement that is now seeking to set up an Islamic state across the entire region.

After 1991, when the Soviet regime collapsed, Chechnya tried to break away from Russia. Chechens were successful in wresting de facto control away from Moscow as a result of the First Chechen War (December 1994-August 1996) that led to the Khasav-Yurt Accord which marked Russia’s defeat.

However, Moscow sent in the army again in October 1999 to crush the independence movement after rejecting all peace proposals presented by Aslan Maskhadov (after 1997 Chechen president and eventually rebel leader).

In its drive to retake the republic Russia eliminated all pro-independence leaders (for example, Chechen Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev was arrested in 2000 and has not been heard ever since), giving the army carte blanche against the civilian population.

When Maskhadov declared a unilateral cease-fire in February 2005, respected by most rebel fighters, Russian Special Forces responded on March 8 by killing him in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt.

With Maskhadov dead, Abdul Halim Sadulayev, a religious leader and Islamic ideologist who headed a Sharia court, took over the leadership.

Despite the resistance the Russians were able to impose a pro-Moscow government that played an important role in defeating the rebels but which consolidated its power through systemic use of violence against its opponents and their families.

Over the years wars and conflict have taken their toll on the region’s economy. Unemployment is high, corruption and nepotism have become endemic and the lack of legal protection and recourse has created a huge gap between the authorities and the population.

Throughout the Caucasus more and more people, especially the young, are turning to Islam as the only way to solve social and personal problems.

Moscow reacted to rising religious fervour by wielding its big stick. In October 2005, people in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, revolted in response to systematic persecution of Muslims, including arbitrary detention and torture by law enforcement officials, and wholesale closure of mosques. Russian forces eventually retook the city but killed and wounded hundreds, civilians included.

In the end Moscow was able to crush Chechen rebels, who can no longer mount any military operation against Russian troops now stationed in the country. But for the Centre for Eastern Studies, the result has been significant. The rebels no longer want their own independent state but rather a trans-Caucasian Islamic state that would incorporate all of Russia’s Caucasian republics: Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

An open region-wide revolt may not have started yet but increasingly those who are dissatisfied with the status quo want to “liberate” the entire northern Caucasus and establish an Islamic state with the Qur’an as its basic law. Among local populations Western values such as democracy, human rights and civil liberties appear distant, without credibility as a result of Western silence and non intervention in the Chechen problem. Under the circumstances defeating the rebels will be difficult because they are motivated by the population’s religious identity.