Russia is pressuring thousands of Chechen refugees to return to their war-ravaged homeland from the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, even though they fear for their lives and will have nowhere to live, human rights activists said today.
Officials of Human Rights Watch, an international rights group, said Russian authorities are resorting to threats and intimidation to force 23,000 Chechens to abandon the Ingush tent camps and return home. In a 27-page report released today, the group accused migration officials of threatening to cut off supplies of food, gas and electricity to the camps if the refugees did not return voluntarily.
The report, based on dozens of interviews conducted last month in Ingushetia, contends that Russia is violating various international covenants that prohibit the forcible resettlement of refugees to unsafe areas.
Russian officials said that although they wanted the refugees to return home and start to rebuild their shattered region, they were not ordering them out of Ingushetia, a tiny, semi-autonomous republic of about 300,000 on Chechnya's western border.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a special assistant on Chechnya to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in Washington this week that Russia had not cut off any water or electricity.
The Human Rights Watch report is the second from such a group in two days to accuse Russia of persecuting Chechen civilians. On Tuesday, officials of two other rights organizations said Moscow police were using an October hostage-taking by Chechen militants as an excuse to detain and beat Chechens throughout the Russian capital. Those groups reported dozens of cases of police misconduct against Moscow's Chechen population, estimated at about 100,000.
The accusations of abuses come as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), one of Europe's premier human rights organizations, is meeting to consider a new resolution on Chechnya. Russia is a member of the intergovernmental group, which was scheduled to vote today.
This year's session has been particularly tense because a draft resolution recommends that Russia postpone its plans for a March 23 referendum on a new Chechen constitution. Frank Judd, who monitors Chechnya for PACE, has argued that a referendum held now would be meaningless because the daily violence in the republic prohibits any democratic debate.
Russian officials defend the referendum as an important step toward normalcy that will open the way for democratic elections later this year. Dmitri Rogozin, head of Russia's delegation to PACE, has threatened to call for a different official to monitor Chechnya if Judd continued to oppose the referendum.
Although Russia says that it is slowly establishing civil order in the battered republic, conflict continues to rage between the 80,000 Russian soldiers there and a few thousand Chechen guerrillas, who have increasingly resorted to headline-grabbing terrorist tactics.
Human Rights Watch officials said today that Russian troops also continue to inflict suffering on the population in Chechnya. The group's report lists 17 male Chechens who disappeared after they were stopped by Russian soldiers and cites allegations that Russian soldiers killed the former administrator of the town of Alkhan-Kala.
In Ingushetia, the report says, Russian officials make daily visits to six refugee tent camps, warning families to move out before gas, electricity and humanitarian aid are cut off. Researchers visited 12 sites on a government list offered as alternative government housing in Ingushetia and found 10 of them uninhabitable or occupied, the report says.