- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

Human rights abuses in Chechnya remain rampant despite a highly touted referendum staged last month by the Russian government to ease the political and humanitarian crisis in the breakaway republic, Chechen advocates said yesterday.

"Unfortunately, one can easily see that the situation has not changed for the better" since the March 23 referendum on a new constitution, said Eliza Moussaeva, an official of the Memorial Human Rights Center. Memorial provides legal aid to the nearly 100,000 Chechen refugees who have fled the brutal war and now live in the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia.

"Why did we even need to have the vote if it wasn't going to change the situation for the better and bring reform?" said Mrs. Moussaeva, who spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing arranged by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. agency that monitors human rights in Europe and Russia.

The Chechen conflict, closely identified with Russian President Vladimir Putin, began in 1999 as a bid by Moscow to crush once and for all ethnic Chechen separatists who had resisted central authority.

But Russian forces have been able only to establish shaky control in Grozny and a few other Chechen cities, and the conflict has degenerated into a grinding guerrilla struggle with both sides accused of atrocities.

In Moscow yesterday, the Chechen interior minister in the pro-Moscow government administering the province said 46 persons were abducted in the month since the referendum, in which the new constitution was overwhelmingly approved.

Interior Minister Ali Alkhanov and his aides told a Moscow news conference that Russian troops and pro-Russian police officers in Chechnya were responsible for many of the illegal detentions and disappearances.

Maureen Greenwood, advocacy director for Europe and Eurasia at Amnesty International, said at the Capitol Hill hearing that the Chechen struggle had become a "forgotten war," overlooked in the international focus on Iraq and in the absence of independent international observers to report on the conflict.

The Bush administration supported a resolution that the European Union presented last week before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva to condemn violations by Russian military and security forces in Chechnya. But the U.S. declined to co-sponsor the measure and it was narrowly defeated.

Ambassador Michael Southwick, chief U.S. delegate to the Geneva gathering, said the Chechen population had experienced "unendurable suffering" in the war, but also held out hope the referendum "will enable a political process to take hold that produces a lasting reconciliation in the area."

Bela Tsugaeva, information manager for the Ingushetia-based human rights group World Vision, said a potential humanitarian crisis looms for about 92,000 Chechen refugees living in temporary camps, private houses and even abandoned industrial sites in Ingushetia because of the violence across the border.

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