Rights Court Says Russian 'State Agents' Killed Chechen Activist

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 22, 2007

MOSCOW, June 21 -- The European Court of Human Rights found Thursday that a Chechen woman who had appealed to the court and was subsequently slain in her home along with three members of her family was "extra-judicially executed by State agents," according to the judgment.

Zura Bitiyeva, a local human rights activist, had accused the Russian state of subjecting her to inhuman and degrading treatment after she was arrested in January 2000. She was held at the Chernokozovo detention center, a notorious facility that has been the subject of investigations by human rights groups. She was released without charge the following month. In April of that year, after a period in the hospital, she appealed to the court.

Three years later, on May 21, 2003, a group of men wearing the uniforms of Russian special forces burst into Bitiyeva's home in the middle of the night, the judgment said.

Neighbors and Bitiyeva's daughter, who was hiding in another building off the family courtyard, heard six or seven shots. Bitiyeva's daughter, who later received asylum in Germany, found the bodies of her mother, father, brother and uncle. Their hands and feet had been taped and they had been shot in the head.

After reviewing the evidence, the panel of seven judges wrote that "the Court concludes, therefore, that the deaths . . . can be attributed to the State." The judges noted that the Russian government had "failed to provide any other explanation of the events."

Russian officials told the court that there were no special operations in Bitiyeva's village on the night she was killed, but the judges said Russian authorities provided little evidence to support that claim. In 2003, a second Chechen war was raging between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.

The judgment said there was no "direct evidence" that Bitiyeva was killed because of her application to the court, which is in Strasbourg, France. The court enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, a founding document of the now 47-member Council of Europe, the continent's human rights body.

This was the court's first ruling in a case from Chechnya in which an applicant was subsequently slain. Human rights advocates said Bitiyeva's death was part of a pattern of intimidation, disappearance and killing of Chechens who had appealed to the court.

The court also found in favor of Bitiyeva's original application that she was subject to inhuman and degrading treatment at Chernokozovo -- and noted that, at the time, the detention center appeared to be outside the control of any legal authority.

"The Court finds it inconceivable that in a State subject to the rule of law a person could be deprived of his or her liberty in a detention facility over which for a significant period of time no responsible authority was exercised by a competent State institution," the judges said. "This situation fosters impunity for all kinds of abuses and is absolutely incompatible with the responsibility of the authorities to account for individuals under their control."

That language may signal the court's hostility to any European cooperation with the American use of extraordinary rendition, the practice of seizing and holding terrorism suspects in unknown locations, if cases on the issue make their way to the court, according to Philip Leach, director of the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Center. "The court is making a very clear statement that any kind of detention has to be regulated by the state," Leach said.

The human rights center, along with the Russian human rights group Memorial, represented Bitiyeva's daughter at the court.

No one has been arrested in the killings of Bitiyeva and her family. Her daughter was awarded approximately $115,000 in moral damages by the court.

But Leach said the Council of Europe needs to step up pressure on Russian authorities to press investigations through to a conclusion. "Bringing people to justice has got to happen, but it's not happening," he said. "The Russians say in this case and others that they are reopening investigations, but it doesn't go much further than that."

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