Kremlin 'was complicit in Chechen murders'

The European Court of Human Rights has found the Kremlin complicit in the murder and abduction of Chechen civilians snatched by Russian troops between 2000 and 2002.

In a rare ruling on the subject from the Strasbourg court, judges said Russia bore responsibility for the disappearances and murder or "presumed death" of three individuals. In one case the abductee, a 40-year-old mother of four, turned up in a mass grave eight months later, while in two others the bodies have never been found. The judgments, only the third and fourth from the court concerning Chechnya, are a damning indictment of how Russian troops prosecuted a war designed to destroy separatist rebels.

Troops entered Chechnya in 1999 to flush out independence-minded rebel fighters. But civilians were dragged into what became one of the 20th century's most brutal conflicts. Human rights groups estimate that up to 5,000 civilians have "disappeared" since 1999.

One of yesterday's rulings concerned the fate of Nura Luluyeva, a 40-year old nurse and kindergarten teacher. Ms Luluyeva was taken from a market in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on 3 June 2000 where she was selling strawberries. A group of masked Russian servicemen riding on an armoured personnel carrier abducted her in the course of what they claimed was a lawful "special operation." A sack was put over her head and she was never seen alive again. Eight months later, in February 2001, her decomposed body was uncovered in a mass grave containing 51 bodies, the biggest "dumping ground" of its kind.

The grave was less than a mile from the main Russian military base in Chechnya and an autopsy showed that Ms Luluyeva died from a blow to the head with a blunt object. Many of the bodies found there were bound and blindfolded.

The court found that Russia had violated the European Convention of Human Rights on five separate counts and said it "could not but conclude that Nura Luluyeva was apprehended and detained by state servicemen. There existed a body of evidence that attained the standard of proof 'beyond reasonable doubt', which made it possible to hold the state authorities responsible for Nura Luluyeva's death," it said.

In another judgment, the court found Russia responsible for the abduction and "presumed" deaths of a man aged 23 and his father. The son, a student called Said-Khuseyn Imakayev, was snatched by "military personnel" on 17 December 2000 and has not been heard of since. His father, Said-Magomed Imakayev, 47, began looking for him until he too was abducted on 2 June 2002 by about 20 servicemen who took him from his home.

The authorities blamed the abductions on separatist rebels, but eventually admitted they had detained the father on terrorism charges that didn't stand up. They claim he was released on the same day; he has not been seen since.

His widow, Marzet Imakayeva, said she hoped the ruling would prompt the authorities to tell her where the bodies of her husband and son are so she can bury them properly.

Stichting Russian Justice Initiative, a legal-aid organisation that helped the relatives mount the cases, said the rulings should weigh heavily on Russia's national conscience.

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