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Helsinki Commission Members Urge Chechnya Dialogue in Bush-Putin Meeting

September 12, 2003

The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As you prepare to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Camp David later this month, we urge you to raise several issues regarding the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Chechnya. Today, the most egregious violations of international humanitarian law in the OSCE region are occurring in that region of Russia.

We wholeheartedly support the U.S. efforts to work with the Government of the Russian Federation on the host of important issues facing our two nations, and we welcome the increased cooperation with Russia to confront the challenges of terrorism. Nevertheless, the charge of terrorism must never be used as a blanket rationalization for flagrant and massive abuse of Chechnya’s civilian population. Indeed, a fundamental tenet of humanitarian law is that the means of warfare are not unlimited.

In their drive to suppress Chechen separatism, elements of the Russian military, security organs and police forces have employed brutal means and virtually guaranteed to drive a despairing civilian population into the arms of a radicalized resistance. The Moscow-supported authorities in Chechnya have themselves confirmed that there are 49 known mass graves in Chechnya containing about three thousand bodies. According to the respected human rights organization “Memorial,” in the first three months of this year representatives of Russian federal forces abducted 119 persons; last year in the same time period this figure amounted to 82 persons. We urge you to encourage President Putin to invite the International Commission on Missing Persons to assist in resolving the thousands of missing persons cases.

Numerous military and paramilitary units have been particularly distinguished by brutality toward the civilian population. Such units should be withdrawn from Chechnya and those responsible for egregious human rights violations should face criminal charges. To date, the Russian military and judicial system has yet to demonstrate its commitment to seriously address this problem.

Despite the precarious security environment in Chechnya, the Russian Government is implementing a policy of forced repatriation of thousands of internally displaced persons who have fled to neighboring Ingushetia. This summer displaced Chechens, including those in the Askanovskie Garazhi temporary settlement and the Bella Camp, have reportedly been subjected to intense pressure by government officials to immediately return to Chechnya or face a loss of humanitarian aid, or worse. UNHCR reports that more than 1,500 people have left under questionable circumstances since January. In keeping with the 1999 OSCE Charter for European Security, under which the Russian Federation agreed to “facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons in dignity and safety,” we urge you to seek President Putin’s assurance that coercive repatriation will cease, IDPs will be permitted to remain in the relative secure environs of the Ingush IDP camps, and humanitarian relief groups will be allowed to provide aid to IDPs in the region.

One of the characteristics of Russia’s policy in Chechnya has been to cut off the region from outside observers such as press, human rights organizations and representatives of many international organizations. Visits that are allowed to occur are infrequent and heavily monitored by government officials. To paraphrase President Reagan, Mr. Putin should “tear down the wall” and allow reasonable access to Chechnya by interested observers.

Finally, we would call attention to the continued disappearance of Arjan Erkel, a Dutch national and employee of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. Mr. Erkel was kidnaped over a year ago in Dagestan, and there is reliable evidence that he is still alive. We hope you will join the many voices of the international community calling upon President Putin to see that every appropriate measure is taken by Russian authorities to locate and free Mr. Erkel.

Mr. President, we have no illusions about certain elements of the Chechen resistance who have murdered hostages, kidnaped civilians for ransom and used them as shields during combat operations, and embarked on a campaign of assassination against innocent citizens of Russia as well as fellow Chechens who work for the Russian civil government in Chechnya. We know that some individuals or factions of the resistance have been linked to international terrorist organizations. They should be brought to justice, wherever they are and whomever they serve.

In conclusion, Mr. President, we strongly urge you to raise these important issues in your upcoming talks with President Putin given the gravity of the situation in Chechnya.

Sincerely,

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S.
Co-Chairman

Christopher H. Smith M.C.
Chairman

Russell D. Feingold, U.S.S.
Commissioner

Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C.
Ranking Member

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