Impunity and the "absence of requisite determination"

20 July 2018

By Simon Cosgrove

...reflections (mostly) on the past week [8 - 14 July 2017]

This past week marked the 8th anniversary of the brutal abduction and murder (on 15 July 2009) of Natalia Estemirova who for several years had been the leading member of the NGO Memorial in Chechnya. The killing of this courageous human rights defender, for which no one has been held responsible, stands as a terrible example of impunity in today’s Russia. The week also saw the fourth anniversary of the murder of journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, a Caucasian Knot correspondent, in Dagestan (on 9 July 2013). In this case also, those responsible for the killing have yet to be brought to justice. While the investigation into Natalia Estemirova’s death formally remains ongoing, the authorities suspended the investigation into the killing of Akmednabi Akhmednabiyev in November 2015. 


In March 2016, in written observations submitted to the European Court of Human Rights on a case concerning the killing of Natalia Estemirova, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks observed that the murder of Estemirova "should be viewed on the backdrop of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in the North Caucasus and, in particular, the Chechen Republic." The Commissioner pointed to the fact that "the absence of requisite determination on the part of the authorities has been one of the main obstacles to pursuing accountability, in violation of the state’s procedural obligations.”

As noted in an earlier blog, the persistent issue of impunity for crimes in Chechnya returned to prominence earlier this year when, on 1 April, Novaya gazeta reported a coordinated campaign against LGBT people in the region had resulted in abduction, imprisonment and torture and other ill-treatment of more than 100 gay men. Novaya gazeta claimed it had verified information that at least three men had been killed by their captors. On 6 July Novaya gazeta said the Investigative Committee had yet to respond to its call for an investigation

This week Novaya gazeta once again raised the question of impunity in the North Caucasus. On 9 July the newspaper published allegations that security forces in Chechnya had summarily executed 27 people on the night of 26 January 2017. The newspaper reported the alleged victims had been unlawfully detained in a series of raids, without formal arrests being made, that began in mid-December 2016 following an attack on police officers in Grozny on 16 December (in the aftermath of which, reportedly, at least eleven people had been killed). 

Relatives of missing detainees have since been reported as saying they believe the allegations of extra-judicial killings. Memorial Human Rights Centre has said previously it is aware of at least three individuals detained by law enforcement authorities at the time of the December 2016 shootings whose fates are unknown (Askhab Yusupov, Ismali Bergoev, and Madina Shakhbieva). Following the publication of the allegations, Amnesty International called for an immediate investigation and for the perpetrators, in the event the allegations prove true, to be brought to justice. The organization's statement noted, “Amnesty International has documented the practice of extrajudicial executions in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus for many years, and these allegations are consistent with our past findings.” 

Impunity for such egregious crimes - and the failure to effectively investigate allegations of such crimes - can have two primary causes: either state authorities are unable to investigate these crimes effectively and bring the perpetrators to justice, or there is a lack of will to do so - what Muižnieks calls the "absence of requisite determination." In this context, the statements of law enforcement and justice officials, as well as of political leaders, assume great importance. For its part, the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Chechnya has said with regard to the allegations that an investigation is underway in connection with the 16 December attack, but has rejected the latest allegations of extra-judicial killings. On 10 July Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the federal authorities had seen the reports and "taken them into consideration, as well as the Chechen law enforcement agencies’ statement refuting the reports." Does one sense here the "requisite determination"?

The issue of impunity, in particular in relation to Chechnya, has also arisen in connection with the trial and conviction of five men for the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, as discussed in last week's blog. This week, on 13 July 2017, the five men, all of whom are reported to have links with the security services in Chechnya controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Republic of Chechnya, were sentenced to terms in prison of between 11 and 20 years for the murder of Nemtsov. While many have welcomed the conviction of the perpetrators, observers have noted that the person or persons who ordered the killing of Nemtsov have neither been identified nor brought to trial. Disturbingly, however, it was not this aspect of the judicial process that troubled Ramzan Kadyrov, who reportedly told a meeting of government officials in Chechnya that the five men had been convicted in Moscow on "doubtful evidence," describing them as “completely innocent.” 

Aleksei Navalny 

This week, in marked contrast to what Muižnieks called "the absence of requisite determination" on the part of the authorities with regard to the conduct of prompt, thorough and effective investigations of crimes and allegations of crimes in Chechnya, law enforcement bodies in Russia devoted great energy and application - and indeed determination - to ratcheting up the pressure on Aleksei Navalny as he seeks to promote his candidacy for the 2018 presidential elections

On 8 July Moscow police detained at least 52 Navalny supporters who were out campaigning. On 9 July police in Krasnodar detained a Navalny volunteer for several hours (the previous week his campaign office in the city had been attacked by a group of self-declared Putin supporters). On 11 July police in Krasnoyarsk detained Ruslan Rudenko, who is a local coordinator of the Navalny presidential campaign. On 12 July police seized computers from the campaign’s Krasnoyarsk office and said Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny’s national campaign, is suspected of copyright infringement and creating a computer virus. And for good measure, as RBK reported, young people who had taken part in rallies organized by Navalny were being asked, along with their parents, to answer a special questionnaire containing about 60 questions on their upbringing, their families, their political views, and so on.

Nor was it only the police who were taking action apparently aimed at hampering and intimidating Navalny and his supporters. The federal penitentiary service made an official request that Navalny be imprisoned, in place of the suspended sentence he is currently serving for fraud, on the grounds that he had violated the law on public assembly. Prosecutors closed the investigation into the June attack on Navalny when green antiseptic was thrown at him, causing chemical burns to his right eye. And, according to Navalny, his wife and two children were being tracked by the Russian security services. 

It is precisely this kind of coordinated, demonstrative and determined activity by Russian law enforcement agencies that prima facie would seem to be politically-motivated. And this leads many observers to conclude that the impunity for certain kinds of crime in Russia (as, for example, discussed above in Chechnya) results from what Muižnieks calls an "absence of requisite determination" that is also politically-motivated. It is the kind of conclusion that all those concerned about human rights in Russia would sincerely wish to be wrong.