Anna Neistat: What Mr Blair should say to the Russian President

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The Independent Online

From everything we have heard from Tony Blair in recent days and weeks, it seems unlikely that he will wish to ask Vladimir Putin difficult questions when the two leaders meet at Downing Street today. On the contrary. The Prime Minister seems eager to go out of his way to make things easy. Eager - and wrong.

In some respects, Blair's attitude is understandable. There are many reasons why Britain should want a friendly relationship with Russia, in a post-Iraq world more than ever. Nor has Putin's presidency been all bad. Tax reforms have helped to improve the Russian business climate, and judicial and legal reform have been introduced, including the adoption at last of a new criminal procedure code.

For many observers, however, the list of problems - including freedom of the press and the routine use of torture in police custody -- remains longer than the list of achievements. It is possible to find mitigating circumstances which explain why Putin's successes in dealing with the Soviet legacy have been modest. Nothing, however, can excuse the Russian leader for the ignominy of his own legacy - the continuing war in Chechnya.

Four years ago, Putin's determination to crush the separatist rebels in Chechnya by force helped to elect him by a landslide. In the meantime, the effect of his anti-terrorist campaign has proved catastrophic. Chechen rebels commit attacks on civilians inside and outside Chechnya, and have opened a new wave of terror attacks in recent months. Russian soldiers and policemen die in Chechnya daily; survivors bring their abusive war experience back into civilian life.

Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have been displaced; tens of thousands live in neighbouring Ingushetia, in miserable conditions and under the constant threat of forcible return to Chechnya. Russian troops in Chechnya continue routinely to execute, "disappear", torture, and arbitrarily detain civilians. By failing to bring perpetrators to justice, the Russian government has cultivated a climate of impunity that encourages a proliferation of such abuses.

Meanwhile, Putin seeks to persuade world leaders that the situation in Chechnya is "normalising". Independent witnesses agree that the referendum held in March - which Blair praised this month, as if it were a substantial step towards a stable democracy - was a fiction; the alleged 85 per cent turnout is in sharp contrast to eyewitness accounts of deserted polling stations. (Lord Judd, the Council of Europe's special rapporteur on Chechnya, resigned in protest at the conditions in which the referendum took place.)

Surreally, Putin describes Russian actions in Chechnya as a "contribution to the global war on terror". In reality, the unchecked brutality of the Russian forces helps to feed that terror every day. Recently released official statistics, as well as Human Rights Watch research, show that the human rights situation is getting worse. Officials have admitted the existence of 49 mass graves containing the remains of nearly 3,000 civilians, and provided shocking figures on disappearances, indicating that at least 60 people are disappeared in Chechnya every month.

We will never know whether those who are detained by Russian forces have any connection with global terrorism, because the truth disappears along with those who are detained.

Aishat Mazhieva lost her husband and three sons in Grozny in a single night in January. Several dozen masked armed men arrived in armoured personnel carriers at the family home on Yablochnaya Street in the middle of the night. They forced their way into one apartment and took away Mazhieva's husband and youngest son, while others detained her two other sons in adjacent apartments, where they lived with their families. All four Mazhievs were driven away, and have not been seen again.

Aishat wept as she showed me photographs of her youngest son Arbi, a 19-year-old dancer who had recently returned from a tour with his ensemble to Moscow, Warsaw and Paris. "Why him?" she kept asking me. "Why did they take him?"

Last week, Tony Blair expressed his hope that he and Putin may agree "both on the need for human rights but also on the need for a complete end to any form of terrorism emanating in Chechnya". I wonder whether he understands what kind of anti-terrorist measures he thus associates himself and his country with.

I wonder if he understands that "but also" is not the best way to link human rights protection and fighting terrorism. And finally, I wonder if he realises that he has a unique opportunity to raise the Chechnya problem in unambiguous terms at last. He may choose to believe that the conflict in Chechnya is over, and that a viable political process is now under way. He may choose to persuade himself - because that is the easier choice.

In a famous couplet written two centuries ago, Pushkin perfectly summed up the depressing problem we see in Downing Street today. "It is so easy to deceive me - For I am glad to be deceived." President Putin can be comfortable in the knowledge that Tony Blair seems determined not to admit the truth - let alone act on it. That failure does a disservice to Chechnya, to Russia, and the world.

aneistat@hrw.ru

Anna Neistat is Moscow office director of Human Rights Watch

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