Hearing: Developments in the Chechen Conflict

Date: May 9, 2002
Source: Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
By Andrei Babitsky


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commission, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today and to offer my views on the war in Chechnya. My testimony is limited to a specific but very important aspect of the issue, namely, the situation of journalists. I will be glad to address other issues during the question and answer session.

Early in the morning of November 2, 1999, two cars left the Chechen village of Semashki, moving towards Katyr-Yurt. The road went through the regional center of Achkoi-Martan; with its Russian guard post nearby. Without any warning, Russian soldiers in the guard post opened fire with automatic weapons on the approaching cars. . There were three young men in one car and two women in the second. The three men were seriously wounded right away, but one managed to get out of the car and hide in the nearby brush. The women were not hurt and the soldiers let them pass --but only on foot. The soldiers pulled the two wounded men from the car and tied them up with barbed wire. After a brief consultation, the soldiers poured fuel on the wounded men and set them on fire. Already engulfed in flames, the Chechens managed to shout to the women, who were waiting nearby, to tell their relatives in Semashki that they had been killed by Russian soldiers. There have been many such episodes in the second Chechen war, but no one knows about most of them. I learned about this incident only because at that time I was located illegally in Achkoi-Martan.

Today, after the snows have melted in Chechnya, many burial sites have been found where people are buried who were killed after "mopping-up operations" or after detentions at guard posts. No one knows why these people were killed -- either those whose corpses were found recently or in the more distant past. In most cases, the corpses bear marks of torture while the victims were still alive. In other cases, the corpses were mutilated after the victim was dead. But one can say that these people were not put to death by court order. They were killed as part of the anarchy and arbitrary rule which is now the order of the day in Chechnya. According to the Russian human rights organization Memorial, every month there are from 30 to 50 cases of extra-judicial killings of civilians who are taken from villages and cities during special or so-called "mopping up operations." I also think that in many cases the military's arbitrary acts are possible because of the successful official campaign to silence reporting on Chechnya.

From the onset of the second Chechen campaign, the Russian military and political authorities succeeded in establishing a censorship regime that immediately screened out journalists whose reports on the war were not in accord with the official position. At the start of the war -- both voluntarily and after official pressure -- most Russian media outlets began to reflect the official position which excluded reports on the massive human rights violations committed by military personnel against the civilian population. Some Russian media outlets continued to publically report on the crimes committed by the military against civilians. These include four Moscow-based, relatively small circulation newspapers -- "Novaya Gazeta," "Novaya Izvestiya," "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," and "Kommersant" -- and various Internet sites. The issue is not so much how Russian journalists assess the general situation in Chechnya. Most reporters are in agreement with the official Russian position that it is an anti-terrorist and anti-separatist war. This does not mean, however, that Russian journalists would not report on crimes conducted by the military against the civilian population. The main issue is that the Russian military and the Kremlin have banned reports on killings, torture and kidnappings of civilians by the Russian military. The lack of information about Chechnya is one of the most effective ways to create a situation in which killers and kidnappers in epaulets can operate without legal accountability.

In the first months of the military operations, one could manage to get into the territory of Chechnya via informal channels. This was the only way foreign journalists could carry out their work after Russian officials -- without any explanation -- had denied them their right to be in the conflict zone. Several foreign journalists who remained in Chechnya or Ingushetia without the necessary official permission have been deprived of their accreditation or denied Russian visas. Last year, the Russian government denied my acquaintance, the Czech journalist Petra Prokhazkova, entry into Russia for the next five years, although her husband is a Russian citizen and a permanent resident of Ingushetia. I also know of another eight foreign journalists who covered the war in Chechnya who have been put on a visa blacklist by the Russian security forces and the Russian Foreign Ministry. They will not be allowed to enter Russian territory for five years.

Today, the Russian authorities have virtually resolved the problem of reporting on human rights violations in Chechnya. Television was the first target of the Kremlin campaign to suppress such information, even during the days of such independent TV stations as NTV and TV6. Direct TV broadcasts from Chechnya are totally under the control of the Russian military, since the only TV satellite relay dish is located in the main Russian military base in Khankala. The Khankala base is the command center for the Unified Group of the Russian Federation Armed Forces of the Northern Caucasus which oversees the activities of the Russian army, the Russian Security Services (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) troops. It is also where the Unified Group has its Press Center and its daily press releases serve as the basis of all information from the conflict zone. Access to Chechnya is in effect limited to those journalists who are willing to agree to twenty pages of extremely strict rules of accreditation which violate Russian law. (I can go into further detail on accreditation at a later point.) The Press Center of the Russian Federal group of the Russian Forces in the Northern Caucasus carefully monitors the reports of journalists who have been in Chechnya. It also denies entry to those journalists whose reports -- in the opinion of the military censors -- contain defamatory material about Russian military personnel. On the territory of Chechnya, journalists are required to restrict themselves to the territory of the Khankala military base. They may leave Khankala only if they are accompanied by Press Center officers. There are a few journalists who continue to work in Chechnya, but only after they have made incredible efforts and ignore official regulations. They do so at the risk of their lives..During her last assignment in Chechnya about one month ago, "Novaya Gazeta" reporter Anna Politkovskaya was forced to illegally escape from Chechnya after FSB officers made threats against her life. She was collecting material about the killing of civilians by members of a special detachment of the Russian Federation Armed Forces Main Espionage Directorate (GRU) in the Shatoi region.

Having resolved their assigned tasks in the conflict zone, the Russian authorities and the FSB are starting to bring under their control those regions which neighbor Chechnya, first of all Ingushetia, which shelters over 150,000 Chechen refugees. In the last few months, and without any explanation, the FSB has expelled several groups of foreign reporters from Ingushetia. Journalists have been detained, held for hours of interrogation, and threatened with physical reprisals. The FSB in Ingushetia told one of my acquaintances -- a foreign reporter whose name I cannot reveal for obvious reasons -- that they would break her hands if she did not leave the republic. The FSB officers told the journalist that they had to operate this way because they had no formal reason to expel her from Ingushetia.

The Russian authorities want to convince the public of the need to conduct this war. But they are also convinced that the Russian troops and the FSB are justified in using brutal methods against the civilian population in Chechnya. I do not believe that President Vladimir Putin is not informed about the Chechen war. Due to his previous KGB career, Putin knows that the security services and the Russian army operate without public or judicial control. Even if Putin is not aware of operational details, he is well informed of the nature of the Chechen war. President Putin is also the ideological and operational center of a politically planned military operation. From the very start, this military and political campaign has aimed at making a ghetto of the war zone. This ghetto is shut off from the sight and influence of the outside world.


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