Responsibility for 13 more disappearances attributed to Russian state authorities
On 27 August 2019, the European Court of Human Rights held the Russian authorities responsible for the abduction, disappearance and presumed deaths of thirteen men from Chechnya or Ingushetia between 2000 and 2005. The judgment from the Court in these cases joins a vast body of similar decisions concerning disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and bombings from the North Caucasus region.
EHRAC and Memorial Human Rights Centre (Moscow) represented the families of two ‘disappeared’ men before the European Court, Rashid Ozdoyev and Tamerlan Tsechoyev, neither of whom have been seen since they were apprehended while driving together in March 2004.
Mr Ozdoyev was an assistant prosecutor at the Ingushetia Prosecutor’s Office, and in charge of the supervision of the Ingushetia Federal Security Service (FSB). He had officially criticised FSB officers for their alleged participation in unlawful activities, including arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial executions, and had reported these practices to the federal authorities in Moscow. On 11 March 2004, he was driving with Mr Tsechoyev, the head of a local NGO and an opposition activist, from Nazran to Malgobek (both in Ingushetia). A car without registration plates collided with them near the village of Verkhniye Achaluki, and blocked the road; eight to ten armed men in camouflage uniform got out of the car, and two more vehicles pulled over. They opened fire on Mr Ozdoyev and Mr Tsechoyev, put them in a minivan and drove them away. Police at a nearby traffic checkpoint witnessed the incident and tried to intervene, but one of the abductors, who introduced himself as an FSB officer, told them to stay away. According to witness accounts, they were taken to the FSB Headquarters in Ingushetia, and then to the town of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia.
An investigation into both disappearances was suspended and re-opened on numerous occasions. In April 2004, investigators filed a letter of confession by an FSB officer, who stated that his unit’s objective had been to arrest five people every week. During special operations, the FSB officers used camouflage uniforms, masks and fake documents. After apprehending a person, they would take him to the FSB headquarters, torture and kill him. He noted that – at that time – his unit no longer apprehended only people genuinely suspected of having taken part in illegal activities, but arrested people randomly, on the basis of their Chechen appearance, to comply with the objectives they had been set. According to the FSB officer, the latest special operation had been to apprehend a prosecutor in possession of compromising material concerning the General under whose command the officer worked. The officer had himself tortured that person, and his colleagues had then killed him.
What did the Court find?
In assessing the evidence provided and establishing the facts of what happened to Mr Ozdoyev and Mr Tsechoyev, the Court noted that the Russian Government provided neither a satisfactory and convincing explanation for the events, nor a plausible alternative version of those events. It found that, given the lack of any reliable news of Mr Ozdoyev and Mr Tsechoyev since their unacknowledged detention and the life-threatening nature of that detention, they must be presumed dead. It attributed their deaths to the State, in violation of the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)). The Court re-iterated its finding from similar cases that
unacknowledged detention constitutes a complete negation of the guarantees contained in Article 5 [the right to liberty] of the Convention and discloses a particularly grave violation of its provisions.
The Court also re-iterated its previous findings that a criminal investigation does not constitute an effective remedy in respect of disappearances, particularly those occurring in the North Caucasus between 1999 and 2006, and that this is a systemic issue in Russia. It found that the authorities failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation into the disappearances and deaths of the two men, in violation of the procedural aspect of Article 2 ECHR, in conjunction with the right to an effective remedy (Article 13 ECHR).
The Court additionally noted its repeated finding that
a situation of enforced disappearance gives rise to a violation of Article 3 [prohibition of torture] of the Convention in respect of the close relatives of a victim…on account of the distress and anguish they suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of their inability to ascertain the fate of their missing family members and of the manner in which their complaints have been dealt with.
It found a violation of Article 3.
The widow of Mr Ozdoyev’s father was awarded €10,000 in respect of pecuniary damage (for loss of earnings of the breadwinner) and €80,000 in non-pecuniary damages. Mr Tsechoyev’s brother, himself a survivor of abduction and torture, was also awarded €80,000 in non-pecuniary damages.
As we argued in this case, the authorities must initiate a fresh investigation into these disappearances, which could lead to the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the abductions. We also invited the Court to indicate that, irrespective of the outcome of the investigation, the Russian Government should undertake all possible measures to locate the bodies of Mr Ozdoyev and Mr Tsechoyev, and return them to their families. It is now up to the Russian Government to take steps to remedy the grave human rights violations raised in this group of cases, and the hundreds of similar cases from the North Caucasus.
 The applicants in the other cases in this group were represented by the Stichting Justice Initiative/Astreya, Mothers of Chechnya and individual lawyers.