Judgment gives hope to families of 5,000 'disappeared' Chechens

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The Independent Online

The Russian government has been held responsible for the death of one of Chechnya's thousands of "disappeared" people for the first time, a judgment that will embarrass the Kremlin.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that Russia bore direct responsibility for the presumed murder of a 25-year-old Chechen, Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev, who it said was probably executed by Russian troops in 2000.

The order to execute him was captured on camera by a television crew, but like many of "the disappeared" his body has never been found, and there is no concrete proof that he is dead.

Human rights groups contend that up to 5,000 Chechens have disappeared since 1999, when Russian troops entered Chechnya for the second time in five years to quell separatist rebels. They have long been pressing for the Kremlin to be held to account, and hailed yesterday's judgement as a breakthrough.

"This is a landmark judgement with major importance for the hundreds of other Chechen disappearance cases still pending before the court," said Ole Solvang, executive director of Russian Justice Initiative.

Mr Solvang's organisation helped Mr Yandiyev's mother, Fatima Bazorkina, take the case to the Strasbourg court. She has been trying to find out what happened to her son for the past six years and said she hoped the ruling would finally spur the government into launching a proper investigation.

The judgment also puts the Russian army in a difficult position, since the officer who gave the order to kill Mr Yandiyev is now in command of all Russian forces in the North Caucasus, and is widely considered a national hero.

On the face of it, the matter seems an open-and-shut case as much of what happened was caught on tape. Mr Yandiyev, who may have been fighting with separatist rebels, is shown in the custody of Russian forces. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, he is seen in a heated argument with Col-Gen Alexander Baranov.

General Baranov is then heard to lose his cool and say: "Take him away, damn it, finish him off there - that's the whole order. Finish him off, shoot him damn it!"

The young man is shown being led away. It was the last time he was seen. His mother's attempts to discover the truth have been stonewalled by the authorities, and General Baranov, who has been questioned twice over the matter, has denied he sent Mr Yandiyev to his death. He argues that his "intervention" was meant to calmMr Yandiyev down, and that the soldiers were not his direct subordinates and therefore could not have taken orders from him.

The European Court disagreed, and said Russia had used "lethal force" and flouted the European Convention of Human Rights on six counts. It awarded Mr Yandiyev's mother £24,000 in damages plus costs.

Russia has three months to appeal against the judgment, but if it remains in force it must come up with an action plan to show such an incident can never occur again. Mr Solvang called for a criminal investigation to be launched into General Baranov's role in the incident.