Chechen rights groups banned by Kremlin

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The Independent Online

The Kremlin has been accused of trying to hush up war crimes committed in Chechnya and of doing its utmost to stop victims from seeking redress and justice internationally.

The allegations, made by human rights organisations, come after the Kremlin launched a legal onslaught against two human rights groups that work with Chechnya. The first organisation, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), was closed by Russia's Supreme Court on Tuesday after a series of rulings that saw it labelled as "extremist".

The RCFS had been active in exposing and reporting on allegations of torture, kidnapping, and murder in Chechnya.

Its two main figures, the journalists Stanislav Dmitrievsky and Oksana Chelysheva, won an Amnesty International award last June for "journalism under threat" having both received death threats. Amnesty International condemned the RCFS's closure as "a double blow" to freedom of expression and civil society.

The second human rights group to run into problems, Russian Justice Initiative (RJI), has performed a more hands-on role in helping Chechen victims of human rights abuses bring their cases before the European Court of Human Rights.

It has won all five of the cases that have so far been adjudicated by the Strasbourg court, costing the Kremlin hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation and a serious dose of international embarrassment.

The RJI has helped Chechen victims notch up landmark legal wins in which the courts have found the Russian government complicit in the murder, abduction and torture of Chechen civilians snatched by Russian troops. The RJI appears to have paid the price for its success.

Its activities in Russia have been suspended since October and its requests to register as an official agency with the authorities under a tough new law have twice been refused.

"The decision to reject RJI's application for registration puts into jeopardy the proper representation before the European Court of Human Rights of hundreds of victims of serious human rights violations," the human rights groups will say in a statement to be released today.

Allison Gill, the director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, said that inside Russia only a handful of cases had been brought against Russian servicemen and that the Kremlin was trying to limit the number of cases outside Russia too.

"The Russian government has been trying to cover up what has been going on in Chechnya for years," Ms Gill said. "Now they are limiting avenues for international accountability. People applying to the court have already faced threats and intimidation. This takes things even further."

The closure of the RCFS came despite an open letter to President Vladimir Putin from leading international figures such as the playwright Harold Pinter and the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel begging him to save the organisation.

However, among official circles in Russia there is little sympathy for the defunct organisation; it was seen as being too close to Chechen separatists.

Specifically, prosecutors alleged that the group had stirred up racial hatred and were incensed by its publication in its own newspaper of articles written by senior figures in the Chechen separatist movement.

The first article, penned by late Chechen rebel president Aslan Maskhadov, called for a peaceful solution in Chechnya, while the second, written by the London-based Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev, urged Russians not to vote for Mr Putin. The Kremlin regards both men as international terrorists.

In the Kremlin's eyes, giving such figures the oxygen of publicity amounted to "extremism".

The move against the two Corganisations is the latest in a series of legal attacks on human rights organisations after the Kremlin enacted the new law last year that tightly controls their activities.