The arrival in Britain of the Russian president-elect, Vladimir Putin, was hit by new controversy last night as British lawyers confirmed they were taking legal action against his government. The action, to be examined by judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, centres on alleged Russian atrocities in Chechnya.
It casts further doubt on the wisdom of Tony Blair's decision to invite Mr Putin to Britain.Critics accused the Prime Minister of appearing to condone what happened in Chechnya. There have been threats of wide-spread protests by civil rights groups and Chechen exiles.
In his first trip abroad since winning the election Mr Putin will meet Mr Blair who described the new president as a man with whom he feels "comfortable". Mr Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, will also take tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and meet business leaders.
Yesterday the prominent civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce said she had taken the case of a Chechen woman who allegedly suffered horrific abuse in the hands of Russian troops. In her submission to the court, Sasita Khasuyeva, who was a nurse in Chechnya before fleeing to the West, accuses the Russian government of serious breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights of which it is a signatory.
She says her husband was shot dead by Russian troops and she was assaulted and abused. She also says she was witness to widespread beatings, rapes and murders by Russian forces in Chechnya.
Ms Peirce said last night: "This is an extremely important case about very serious violations of the [human rights] convention. We are asking the court to uphold the convention and gather evidence about the abuse taking place in Chechnya. Ms Khasuyeva is staying at a secret location until her case is heard.
"Under the convention, individuals can bring a case but so can individual states in the Council of Europe. There is nothing to stop the British Government from taking legal action over Chechnya."
The pressure group Human Rights Watch is due to publish a report into Russian actions in Chechnya including an alleged massacre of civilians in the village of Alkhan-Yurt and claims that hundreds of Chechens are being held hostage in pits to extract ransoms from their families.
Chechen exiles plan to hold a demonstration in Downing Street today. Roman Khalilov, political co-ordinator of the Chechen government in exile said: "We know Putin is directly responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Chechnya."
It is believed the Home Office will try and avoid the "heavy-handed" policing of demonstrators which marked the state visit of the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin.
But MPs and public figures said that it was a mistake to have Putin visit. The Labour left-winger Jeremy Corbyn said: "When Tony Blair went to St Petersburg recently ... that was certainly used [by Moscow] to indicate there was a sort of tacit approval of what the Russian government was doing in Chechnya.
"We have to say bluntly to Russia, you've signed up for all these international conventions, you have to abide by them, you have to stand by them otherwise we're not going to do business with you."