Russians who appeal to the European Court of Human Rights after their relatives disappear or are killed in Chechnya or neighboring Ingushetia face constant threats to force them to drop the cases. In at least five instances, applicants to the court were themselves killed or had disappeared, according to lawyers, human rights groups, court records and relatives.
In April, two men were taken from their homes by armed men after filing a case about the abduction of eight people in a Chechen village in 2004, according to Memorial, a Russian human rights group. The body of one of the petitioners was found in May. Members of his family are now living in fear and considering withdrawing the case, according to Memorial.
Human rights activists say the incidents amount to a campaign of intimidation against the approximately 120 Russians from the North Caucasus who have sought the intervention of the court. The activists stop short of blaming the central government, suggesting that local officials may be acting on their own. The Russian government has denied any connection with the incidents.
Last year, a coalition of human rights groups sent a letter to the court, which sits in Strasbourg, France, and hears claims of violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia signed effective in 1998. The letter detailed the killing and disappearance of two Russians from Chechnya who had appealed to the European Court as well as 12 examples of alleged beatings and threats.
In an interview, Zalina Medova said she has received both death threats and offers of payoffs to press her to withdraw a filing with the court seeking action about her husband, Adam Medov, a taxi driver who disappeared in June 2004. "My answer was always the same," said Medova, the mother of two young children, one of whom was born after her husband disappeared. "Give me my husband and I'll drop the case."
Jane Buchanan, until recently the executive director of the Russian Justice Initiative, calls the intimidation "a really disturbing and shocking problem." That group has filed close to 80 applications before the court. But Isa Gandarov, a lawyer at Memorial's office in the southern republic of Ingushetia, said two-thirds of potential applicants he sees decline to go forward with their cases when warned about the dangers of appealing to the court.
Russian officials did not respond to last year's letter to the court. "If such a letter really exists, it is the European Court that is supposed to give a response to it in line with the procedures of the Court," Pavel Laptev, the Russian representative to the court, said in a written response to questions. Laptev declined to be interviewed in person.
In submissions to the court, Russian officials have denied any involvement by state agencies or the military in specific cases of the killing, disappearance or intimidation of applicants. In his response to questions, Laptev wrote that these allegations "have not been confirmed after checking."
One of the cases involves Medov, the taxi driver. In 2004, he was picked up while on the job in Ingushetia. He became one of at least 3,000 people who have disappeared in the region in the last five years since a second war broke out in Chechnya, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
The group said Russian or Chechen security forces were responsible for most of the abductions. The conflict has spread to neighboring republics, including Ingushetia and North Ossetia, where last year Chechen separatists seized a school in which 330 people, most of them children, were killed.
On the evening of June 17, 2004, road police in Ingushetia stopped two cars headed for the nearby Chechen border. Six armed men were in the vehicles.
After noise was heard from the trunk of one of the cars, it was opened for inspection. Inside, the officers found Medov, his hands bound, according to a statement of facts written by the European Court in April. A second man was in the trunk of the other car.
The six armed men claimed that they were officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB. Still, the road police were suspicious. They consulted with a local prosecutor and then took the men and their prisoners to a nearby police station, according to court documents.
But the six men and their prisoners were all ordered released by the acting Ingush interior minister, Abukar Kostoyev, according to an account of the incident written by the Russian general prosecutor's office. They got back into their cars and drove into Chechnya.
On June 21, the Medov family was informed by letter by a deputy prosecutor in Ingushetia that Medov was detained by "officers of the FSB Department for Chechnya under the command of Lt. Col. Beletskiy V.V."
But on July 7, the head of the FSB in Chechnya wrote to say that Medov had not been detained by his officers and that his department had no knowledge of his whereabouts. The agency also said it had no officer named Beletskiy.
With agencies of the Russian state flatly contradicting each other, Medov's wife, Zalina Medova, applied to the European Court of Human Rights. Threats and offers of payment to back off soon followed, she said in an interview.
Medova, a soft-spoken 25-year-old wearing a light-colored veil over her hair, said the first message was conveyed in January by a distant cousin. He telephoned and told her that some Russian officials, who he said had contacted him, wanted her to withdraw her case. She refused, she recounted, but she continued to hear from the cousin.
In February, the cousin introduced her to a man who described himself as a former major in the FSB. The man said her filing with the European Court threatened the careers of some senior Russian officials. He told her to withdraw it because there was no point in proceeding; her husband was dead, he said.
The major, who never gave his name, said he didn't "want the children to be left without the mother," according to Medova and papers filed with the court. The calls continued, and there began to be suggestions that she might receive money for her cooperation.
In March, she received a final warning. Her cousin called her at home and said several senior officers in the Russian security services were standing beside him. They said they were willing to pay her $30,000 if she withdrew her complaint. If not, the cousin said, she might be killed.
In April, the European Court formally asked the Russian government whether there had been "any hindrance by the State" in Medov's case. Russia has until July 25 to reply.
In the interview, Medova, a restless son sitting on her lap, said her husband had no connection with terrorist or armed groups. "We are a quiet family," she said, rejecting an assertion in one government document that her husband was detained on "suspicion of having committed grave crimes."
In any case, human rights activists point out, a person under suspicion of terrorism or related crimes is still entitled to due process under Russian law.
Applicants appeal to the European Court as a last resort, after they have exhausted their opportunities in their home country. The court first decides whether to communicate the complaint to the Russian government. After the government replies, the court then rules whether it will admit the case for a full hearing and a decision. The whole process can take years.
The court is facing a huge backlog of cases. Last August, it formally gave priority to all cases related to the conflict in Chechnya, a decision that appeared to have been motivated, in part, by reports of pressure on applicants, according to the Justice Initiative.
In addition, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, whose member states set up the court in 1959, passed a resolution last year expressing "outrage" about a number of cases in which applicants had been killed or had disappeared.
Marzet Imakayeva and her husband, Said-Magomed Imakayev, applied to the court in February 2002, about 14 months after their 23-year-old son disappeared in Chechnya. That June, the Imakayevs' home was raided by men in uniform, and Said-Magomed Imakayev was detained. He hasn't been seen since.
Military and prosecution officials continued to harass Imakayeva and have accused her of financing terrorism, according to court records. Imakayeva, her son, daughter and grandson moved to the United States as refugees in 2004.
"I was constantly followed by military vehicles," Imakayeva said in a telephone interview. "The lawyers who worked with me warned me to be careful. To save my remaining children, I had to leave."
In submissions to the court, the Russian state at first denied any involvement in Said-Magomed's disappearance, saying he was kidnapped "by members of one of the terrorist organizations acting in Chechen Republic" who used Russian military uniforms as a disguise. The Russian authorities later revised that statement to say her husband "had been detained by soldiers in accordance with the law" but was later released.
In another case, Zura Bitieva, a human rights activist in Chechnya, appealed to the court, saying she was tortured while in custody in January and February 2000. On May 2003, Bitieva, her husband, Ramzan, her son Idris and her brother were shot and killed at their home in the early morning.
In April 2004, yet another applicant, Yakub Magomadov, vanished. Magomadov, who lived in Moscow, had petitioned the court over the disappearance of his brother, Ayubkhan, in Chechnya in 2000.
"All he did was search for Ayubkhan," said Eliza Magomadova, a sister of the two missing men. "That's why they took him."
In a letter to the court, Laptev said investigators, after various checks, had found no trace of Magomadov.
The most recent killing and disappearance of applicants stemmed from an incident in early 2004 when eight people were detained in a Chechen village by unidentified men whom residents described as "military men," according to Memorial. The bodies of the eight and another person were found in a shallow grave nearly two weeks later.
Two relatives of one of the dead men appealed to the European Court. In April of this year, armed men broke into their home and took them away. Human rights workers asked that the two not be identified to protect the remaining family members.
The body of one of the men was found in a river in Chechnya in May. The other man is still missing.