Russian state agents are responsible for 17 disappearances in 2002-2004 in the North Caucasus

4 December 2018

After years of anguish from not knowing what had happened to their loved ones, the families of 17 ‘disappeared’ men from the North Caucasus have finally received a measure of justice, with the European Court of Human Rights today establishing that the Russian authorities were responsible for their abduction, detention and presumed deaths.

EHRAC and Memorial Human Rights Centre (Moscow) represented the families of Sultan Saynaroyev and Usman Magomadov, who were last seen in 2002, in their application before the European Court. The families of the other 15 ‘disappeared’ men were represented by the Stichting Justice Initiative/Astreya, Mothers of Chechnya and Dokka Itslayev.

What happened to Sultan and Usman?

Sultan was 77 years old, and lived in a small village in Ingushetia. He was a beekeeper; in the afternoon of 22 October 2002, he was heading home from the apiary on foot, when 45 to 50 servicemen in camouflage uniforms arrived. Speaking in unaccented Russian, the servicemen stopped Sultan, and ordered him to a neighbouring apiary, where his documents were checked. They ordered him to come with them to Arshty, where a military unit was stationed, assuring him that the decision to apprehend him had been approved by the municipality. They put Sultan into an armoured infantry carrier and drove towards Chechnya, in the presence of several witnesses. The same day, Sultan’s son spoke to the head of the Arshty police who told him that a “special sweeping-up operation” was taking place in the village.  Two days later, Sultan’s son spoke to the deputy head of the Ingushetia Government, who told him that his father had been taken to the Khankala military base (near Grozny, in Chechnya) and would be released soon. However, Sultan has not been seen since.

On 28 March 2002, Usman was driving to work in Argun (east of Grozny, Chechnya) when a group of four armed military servicemen in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas stopped him at a checkpoint on the town’s outskirts. They pulled him from his car into an armed personnel carrier and drove him towards the town, witnessed by several bystanders. Usman’s wife and one of her relatives Ms. D were among them. Ms. D asked one of the checkpoint servicemen where Usman was being taken, and followed the vehicle in a taxi as they drove towards the Khankala military base. The vehicles stopped along the road, and as Ms. D approached them, another car pulled up and a serviceman asked Ms. D what was happening. After she had explained, the serviceman promised to help. Several days later he informed Ms. D that Usman was in the Grozny department of the Federal Security Service. Usman’s whereabouts are unknown.

Official investigations were opened after the Sultan’s and Usman’s families reported the abductions to the authorities, but the proceedings were repeatedly suspended and resumed. It appears that the investigations are still pending, more than 16 years after the events in question, without any tangible results. The perpetrators have not been identified by the investigating bodies.

How did this violate their human rights?

The Russian Government did not contest the facts of the cases, only that State agents were responsible for the disappearances, and that the disappeared men should be presumed dead. However, the Court found that the victims’ families had established beyond reasonable doubt that their relatives had been abducted by State agents, that the Government had failed to explain what had happened to them and that, given the passage of time since the men were last seen, and the life-threatening nature of their abductions, the men may be presumed dead. Considering that their deaths were attributable to Russia, the Court therefore found a violation of the substantive aspect of the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)).

The Court noted that the criminal investigations had been pending for many years, without any results, and that they had been “plagued by a combination of defects”.  The Court also noted that it has repeatedly found that a criminal investigation does not in itself constitute an effective remedy, particularly in disappearance cases from Chechnya between 1999 and 2006 such as these, and that this is a systemic problem. It therefore also found that there had been a violation of the procedural aspect of the right to life (Article 2 ECHR). It also established a “particularly grave violation” of the right to liberty (Article 5 ECHR), with regards to the victims’ unacknowledged detention.

Additionally, the Court considered that the relatives had suffered and continued to suffer distress and anguish ”as a result of their inability to ascertain the fate of their missing family members and of the manner in which their complaints had been dealt with”, in breach of the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR). The Court also established a violation of the right to an effective remedy (Article 13 with Articles 2 and 3 ECHR).

The Court ordered the Russian Government to pay Sultan’s son €60,000 in compensation. Usman’s family – his two brothers, sister-in-law, wife and three children – were awarded a total of €60,000 in damages, and a further €4,500 was awarded to his children.

What next?

In our submissions, EHRAC and Memorial HRC outlined a series of measures which the authorities should take to provide meaningful redress to the families of the disappeared. These could include, for example, identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the abductions, launching a fresh investigation, undertaking all possible measures to locate the bodies or remains of the abducted men and returning them to their family members, as well as to provide the applicants with access to the investigation files. It is now up to the Russian Government to take steps to remedy the grave human rights violations raised in these cases.