Russia closes Chechnya rights watchdog amid new torture claims

Portions of an article on torture in Chechnya written by murdered reporter Anna Politkovskaya before her death were published Oct. 12 by the Novaya Gazeta. The report detailed allegations of abuse, including an account by one man who said he was hung from a ceiling and beaten by security officials. Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov denies involvement in Politkovskaya’s murder, but her death is a suspected political assassination. Politkovskaya was found shot dead Oct. 7 in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block. Days earlier she said in a radio interview that she was working on a story about torture by Chechen forces with ties to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to bring Politkovskaya’s killers to justice. (Jurist, Oct. 12) Simultaenously, however, Russian federal authorities appear to be acting like they have something to hide. From the AP, Oct. 14:

MOSCOW Human Rights Watch on Saturday denounced the closure of a Russian rights group that exposed abuses against civilians in Chechnya as a flagrant attempt to muzzle criticism.

The highest court in central Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region on Friday satisfied prosecutors’ request to shut down the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which had campaigned against the more than decade-old conflict against separatists in Chechnya and published reports alleging torture, abductions and murder of civilians by Russian forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Saturday that the court’s decision represented a “blatant attempt to silence a strong critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya.”

“Russia’s actions to quash the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society fly in the face of international standards protecting civil society,” Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “The Russian government has moved to systematically eviscerate all checks on its power and civil society is its latest target.”

Cartner urged Moscow’s international partners, particularly the European Union, to speak against official harassment and intimidation of rights activists in Russia.

The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society successfully fought off an attempt to close it last year and has faced increasing pressure from the authorities in recent months. In February, its director Stanislav Dmitryievsky was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and given a two-year suspended sentence.

The court ruling on Friday came less than a week after the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist also known for her reporting on abuses in Chechnya. Speaking earlier in the week, Dmitryievsky linked the prosecutors’ efforts to close the organization with her slaying.

See our last posts on the Caucasus and the struggle in Chechnya.

  1. An ominous postscript
    From the Scotsman, Nov. 22:

    Academic says he and ex-spy were on hit list

    MYSTERY surrounding an apparent assassination attempt on a former KGB officer deepened last night as an Italian academic who was the last to see him before he fell ill said he had given Alexander Litvinenko a hit list on which both their names appeared.

    Professor Mario Scaramella, 38, who met Mr Litvinenko on the day he was poisoned, was surrounded by bodyguards as he arrived for a press conference in Rome to give his version of events at the London sushi bar where he had lunch with the ex-officer.

    The claim by Prof Scaramella, who is a defence consultant, came as Dr Amit Nathwani, the consultant caring for Mr Litvinenko, 43, at University College Hospital in London, said his grave condition was unlikely to have been caused by thallium poisoning, as has been thought. Outside the hospital last night, Dr Nathwani admitted the cause of Mr Litvinenko’s illness may never be known.

    “We have done a series of investigations here and, based on his presentation and some of the laboratory tests that have come through, it is possible that he may not have been poisoned with thallium, although we cannot completely exclude this because of the timing of his presentation at our hospital,” he said.

    Earlier Professor John Henry, a toxicologist, said the damage to Mr Litvinenko’s bone marrow and his blood cells suggested a large dose of “radioactive thallium” could be to blame for his condition.

    Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit is also awaiting the outcome of toxicology tests.

    However, Prof Henry, who has had access to Mr Litvinenko and offered advice on his treatment, said it was clear that something other than just thallium had been used in the alleged poisoning. He said it was the apparent presence of radioactivity that was causing the most concern.

    “Radioactive thallium adds a new dimension to this case,” he said.

    “It means that his bone marrow is at very high risk and we have to see how his cells recover. It is very difficult to treat because you have to rely on the body’s natural resilience.”

    Prof Henry, one of the first to suggest that the Ukrainian leader Victor Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxins, said radioactive thallium was used “in every hospital in the country”.

    “It is a very widely used substance, but not in massive doses,” he said.

    Mr Litvinenko, a defector to Britain who has been granted asylum and citizenship, fell ill on 1 November. He had been investigating the murder of the dissident Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

    In Rome, Prof Scaramella revealed how he had presented Mr Litvinenko with a hit list at the Piccadilly sushi bar. “I told him that I had received some very worrying and disturbing information. I had been given a list of names and lots of facts from a contact.

    “The information was a list of people – it was a hit list and on that list was his name, my name and Paolo Guzzanti [head of Italian commission investigating KGB activities in Italy].

    “There were also names of people in Britain on it. I asked him to make a call to his people in Russia to evaluate it.

    “Mr Litvinenko told me not to worry about it. The arrangement was that I would call him later that night or the following morning. When I called him back the next morning his wife said that he was very sick, but she laughed it off saying half of London was ill.

    “The information regarded plots to do something both in Italy and Great Britain. There were several people in Britain on that list as well as Litvinenko, Mr Guzzanti and myself.”

    He added: “These people are very dangerous. We are talking about people involved in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.”

    Mrs Politkovskaya was found gunned down in a lift at her apartment block in Moscow last month. She had been a fierce critic of Kremlin policy in Chechenya.

    Prof Scaramella recalled the day he met Mr Litvinkeno: “I called him and we arranged to meet in Piccadilly Circus as we always do. I have met him several times. He is a very good source of mine and has contacts in Russia.

    “I was with him for maybe 30-45 minutes. We were downstairs and there were no other people there.

    “He is not a spy. He is a political analyst and activist.”

  2. The evil soup thickens…
    From The Guardian, Nov. 28:

    Polonium detected at Berezovsky’s office

    Detectives have found traces of polonium 210 at the London offices of the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, it was revealed last night. Officers were searching 7 Down Street, Mayfair, after the discovery of the radioactive substance that killed Mr Berezovsky’s friend and former employee, Alexander Litvinenko.

    A uniformed officer and at least one plain clothes policeman were stationed inside the lobby of the property last night. Outside another 15 officers were on standby in two marked police vans and the area was cordoned off.

    Sources confirmed that traces of polonium 210 had been found at the address. Mr Berezovsky, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, refused to comment yesterday on the revelations. “I don’t want to comment anything about it,” he told the Guardian. “I don’t know anything about police at my office.”

    Mr Berezovsky, a former maths professor, made his millions in the 1990s when he bought stakes in the Russian car, oil and media industries, many of which he sold off for enormous profits. He lives with his fourth wife in a Surrey mansion but has an office at the Mayfair address.

    Detectives were also searching the offices of a security and risk management company in Grosvenor Street, in the West End of London, where traces of polonium 210 have been found. A spokesman for the company, Erinys, said it had alerted police because Mr Litvinenko had visited its offices on a “totally unrelated” matter some time before he was admitted to hospital. He added: “None of our staff with whom he had contact have suffered any ill effects.”

    The development came as the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said three people had been referred for further radiation tests at a special clinic after contacting NHS Direct in the past few days. They were among 18 people referred to the HPA for possible further examination since the radiation alert was issued on Friday.

    In the past four days around 500 people have contacted NHS Direct saying they were concerned they may have been contaminated after visiting the Piccadilly restaurant Itsu or the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square on November 1, the day Mr Litvinenko first became ill.

    Dr Pat Troop, the chief executive of the HPA, said people referred to the specialist clinic would undergo urine tests for radioactivity over the next couple of days. The decision to refer them for tests was taken on “a very precautionary basis”, she stressed. Further tests might be carried out if police identified other locations of concern.

    Dr Troop said the HPA had not precisely identified when and where Mr Litvinenko ingested the poison. Working out the time of poisoning on the basis of radioactivity found in his body was “not a precise calculation”, she said.

    In a statement to the House of Commons, the home secretary, John Reid, stressed that police had yet to open a murder inquiry. He warned against any speculation about the death and said the police were not yet saying that Mr Litvinenko had been unlawfully killed. “The police have been very careful in the words they have used; they are dealing with a suspicious death,” he said. “We are not yet at the stage that there is definitely a third party involved.”

    Mr Reid’s statement came in response to an urgent question from the shadow home secretary, David Davis, who said in the House of Commons that there were grounds to suspect that this was a “a particularly cruel, protracted and unpleasant assassination”.

    Mr Davis said the apparent use of polonium 210 raised “a number of issues” over how such material had been obtained, how it was transported and delivered undetected, and who had the knowledge to use it.

    Mr Reid said there were 130 premises in England and Wales with a known use of polonium 210, each regulated and controlled by the Environment Agency. “There has been no recent report of the loss or theft of polonium 210 in England and Wales,” he said.

    Mr Reid drew back from Peter Hain’s outspoken criticism of the Kremlin at the weekend. The Northern Ireland secretary had strained Britain’s relations with Moscow further by accusing President Putin of “huge attacks” on liberty and democracy.

    Tony Blair and President Putin are due to meet this week at the Nato summit in Riga, Latvia. A spokesman for Mr Blair said yesterday: “The prime minister and other ministers have repeatedly underlined our concerns about some aspects of human rights in Russia. In terms of this particular case, however, we do have to proceed carefully.”

    Mr Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer and vocal opponent of Mr Putin, died last Thursday night. A large dose of alpha radiation from the isotope polonium 210 was found in his urine. A statement he composed before he died blamed Mr Putin, a claim denied by the Kremlin.

    The inquest into the death is expected to open on Thursday at St Pancras coroner’s court, north London. It will be adjourned until a later date. Dr Andrew Reid, London’s inner north district coroner, has to decide if and when to conduct a postmortem examination.

    Now can anyone tell us what Polonium is?

  3. And thickens…
    From ITAR-TASS, May 22, 2007:

    Speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, said Tuesday night he supported the stance the Office of the Prosecutor General has taken on the demands of the British Crown Prosecution Service /CPS/ to extradite businessman Andrei Lugovoi, whom the CPS charges with a deliberate radioactive poisoning of former security service officer Alexander Litvinenko.

    “The demand to extradite Lugovoi runs counter to Russian legislation,” Gryzlov said. “As lawmakers, we’ll stand up to the defense of our laws.”

    Litvinenko died at the end of last November, believably of an ‘acute radiation injury’ caused by physical exposure to radioactive polonium 210.

    Lugovoi and Litvinenko had a business meeting in a London bar at the very beginning of November. Later on the same day Litvinenko, who had lived in Britain for seven years by that time, developed symptoms of an illness that prove incurable.

    Suspicions against Lugovoi surfaced soon enough but the man has strongly denied any guilt on his part.

    Tuesday, the CPS director for public prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald made official accusations against Lugovoi.

    “In late January 2007, the police sent a file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service so that we could make a decision about whether criminal charges should be brought against anyone who might have been involved in these events,” Sir Ken said. “I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning.”

    He also said he had instructed CPS lawyers to take immediate steps to seek the early extradition of Lugovoi to the UK so that the man might be charged with murder “and be brought swiftly before a court in London.”

    In the meantime, the spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, Marina Gridneva said no official documents related to accusations against Lugovoi or demands for his extradition have been received so far.

    “Quite naturally, if such documents come to us, they will be scrutinized and all the charges against the Russian citizen will be examined with account of a criminal case over the Litvinenko murder that is investigated by our office,” she said.

    Gridneva recalled that Article 61 of Russia’s Constitution prohibits handovers of Russian citizens to other countries.

    “However, the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and the Russian Code of Practice make it possible to bring a person who has committed a crime abroad to criminal responsibility on the territory of the Russian Federation if our own laws envision responsibility for similar crimes,” she said.