Open Letter by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders to the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin
August 28, 2018
Dear Mr. President:
We write concerning the recent statement by the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, in which he asserted that relatives of alleged insurgents would be held responsible for the latter’s actions and made explicit threats against human rights defenders, equating them with terrorists and pledging to ban them from Chechnya’s territory.
For the past decade, Ramzan Kadyrov and his government have suppressed even the mildest dissent, particularly targeting human rights defenders: whether directly through his officials or through proxies acting with impunity, human rights defenders have been threatened, beaten and killed, while offices of human rights organizations have been set on fire.
As part of their efforts to counter terrorism and Islamist militancy, Kadyrov’s security forces have committed numerous, serious human rights violations, including unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and other ill-treatment, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Among their targets have been suspected Islamist militants and members of their families, who have been targets of collective punishment. Security forces use many of these same unlawful methods of intimidation against peaceful government critics. Our organizations have worked on Chechnya for many years and we have documented cases of all these abuses extensively.
The climate for human rights workers in Chechnya is particularly hostile. This year, Chechen authorities have intensified their attack against the leading Russian human rights organization Memorial. In January, they jailed prominent human rights defender and the head of Memorial’s local office, Oyub Titiev, on fabricated criminal charges pending his trial. Titiev’s arrest was a message to all human rights defenders, as Kadyrov himself stated shortly after the arrest: “they [human rights defenders] must know: they will not work in our region.” Kadyrov at the time also made thinly-veiled physical threats when he promised to “break the back of our enemies.” Since then, Kadyrov has repeatedly smeared human rights defenders, and has also repeatedly called Titiev a “drug addict” and a traitor, both in television broadcasts and on social media. These statements underscore that the criminal proceedings against Titiev are politically motivated, and that Kadyrov personally is behind them or explicitly endorsing them. Titiev’s trial is on-going in the Shali Court of Chechnya.
On August 20, Chechen youth armed with knives allegedly attacked local police officials, killing one and wounding three. On August 23, Kadyrov made statements in which he said he would inflict collective punishment on families of the attackers. He also issued unveiled threats against human rights defenders. In a broadcast on Chechnya’s governmental TV and Radio Corporation (ChGTRK), he said that “some so-called human rights defenders have the audacity to ask why we resort to collective responsibility, why we hold father(s) and mother(s) to account… The father, the mother, the father of the father bear a lot of responsibility, everyone from that family does…This is our motherland, we’re in charge here…”
Kadyrov also made in clear that he believed he has the authority to restrict the right to freedom of movement for human rights defenders, stating that once the trial of Titiev is over, human rights defenders will no longer be able to work in, or come to, Chechnya. He said: “…So-called human rights defenders have no right to walk around in my territory… I’m issuing sanctions against them. Let them walk around [here for now], let them come to Shali [to Titiev’s court hearings], to Grozny. But once the trial is finished – no [more]… They’ll be banned from on our territory because they get in the way of our people living peacefully. I’m officially telling human rights defenders: once the court delivers its ruling [in Titiev’s case], Chechnya will be a forbidden territory for them, like for terrorists, extremists, and others because they’re provocateurs themselves…”
Kadyrov’s remarks show an intent to carry out actions that are unlawful. Chechnya is a subject of the Russian Federation, bound by Russian law and Russia’s international human rights obligations.
Article 5 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which deals with the principle of guilt, provides that persons can be punished solely for “socially dangerous actions (lack of action) and resulting in socially dangerous consequence” and only if their individual guilt has been established by a court of law. Collective punishment is also strictly prohibited by international human rights law. In recent years, our organizations had repeatedly drawn the attention of Russian authorities to the Chechen authorities’ use of collective punishment and urged the Russian government to put an end to this.
Notably, in December 2014, when Kadyrov had similarly pledged to eradicate the insurgency by unlawfully punishing parents for the deeds of their children, you said that “no one, including the leadership of Chechnya, has the right to impose any extra-judicial punishments.” By yet again publicly asserting his intention to impose collective punishment, Kadyrov is demonstrating contempt for the principles and fundamental rules which you have invoked.
Kadyrov’s intent to impose a blanket ban on human rights defenders is equally unlawful and intolerable. It violates the rights to freedom of association and movement, guaranteed under the Russian Constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also wholly incompatible with the obligations of the authorities as set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Our organizations have also repeatedly called on Russian authorities to foster a supportive working climate for human rights defenders in Chechnya, strongly condemn threats and attacks against human rights defenders by Chechen officials at all levels and hold perpetrators to account.
We respectfully urge you to address the issue, including by condemning the recent statement by Ramzan Kadyrov, ensuring that he is not permitted to carry out his unlawful threats against human rights defenders and families and relatives of any suspects. We urge you to take all necessary steps within your authority to ensure that statements and actions that contravene Russian law and Russia’s international obligations have legal consequences prescribed in law, and to ensure immediate release of Oyub Titiev, a human rights defender who has exposed collective punishment and other egregious abuses by Chechen authorities, and has been behind bars for nearly eight months in retaliation for his human rights work.
We thank you for your attention and look forward your earliest response.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
Anna Neistat, Senior Director for Research at Amnesty International
Andrew Anderson, Executive Director at Front Line Defenders