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Rights Group on a Lonely Quest to Document Chechnya Abuses

The Memorial organization exposed a possible mass execution site in the republic. But most media weren't interested.

March 17, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — They were images most people would wish never to see: photographs of a line of bound and blindfolded bodies lying in a warehouse with slashed throats, bullet holes and tattered flesh where ears had been hacked off.

But for the leaders of the human rights group Memorial, this apparent evidence of human rights violations against Chechen civilians needed to be documented and brought to the public's attention, however unpopular it might make the group in some quarters.

It was another example of how Memorial, founded in 1988 by the late Soviet dissident Andrei D. Sakharov to remember victims of Stalinist repression, has been keeping its founder's protest spirit alive by carrying on a lonely effort to bear witness in Russian society to the ugly facts of the war in Chechnya.

In recent days, Memorial has been disseminating details about the discovery of at least 50 bodies found last month in an empty village of summer cottages called Zdorovye, less than half a mile from the main Russian military base in the separatist-minded southern republic.

Most of the bodies--shown in photographs to Russian mass media at a Memorial news conference March 5--bore execution-style gunshot wounds, and many of the victims' hands were tied. The discovery has made the village one of the single largest mass grave sites in the Russian-Chechen war that began in 1999.

State-owned television didn't carry the news conference, and one paper responded by criticizing Memorial. But in the end, the group succeeded in getting details of the atrocities to the public via coverage from the privately owned television network NTV and other independent media.

Russian prosecutors have launched an investigation into the deaths, with officials suggesting that the people were either killed in combat or executed by Chechen rebels or gangs.

Memorial has been skeptical of such explanations, noting that many of the victims appear to have died within the last few months--a time when there was no combat in the area and when rebels wouldn't have been free to come and go in the vicinity of the heavily patrolled base.

Memorial's executive director, Tatyana I. Kasatkina, said that time is of the essence and that funds should be given to the prosecutor now to begin a thorough investigation, but she doubted that it would happen. "It is much more likely that nothing will be done and the case will be dropped," she said.

Alone among Russian nongovernmental organizations, Memorial--which receives its funding from foreign groups such as the Soros Fund and the Ford Foundation--has managed to maintain offices in the war-torn republic and functions as a kind of national conscience, not shying away from speaking out against abuses of civilians and mistakes on the Russian side when the group learns of them.

From two offices in Chechnya, soon to be expanded to five, the group provides legal counseling and human rights monitoring. Its staffers cooperate with President Vladimir V. Putin's human rights representative in Chechnya, Vladimir A. Kalamanov, in part because his guards provide them with security .

Sergei Kovalyov, a liberal member of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, said Memorial's importance for Russia cannot be overstated. "Somebody has to tell the truth," he said.

"Today there is nothing more credible . . . about what is going on in Chechnya than the information meticulously recorded and made public by Memorial," he said. "Their information is correct, unbiased and based on facts checked and rechecked many times."

Despite such praise, Kasatkina--who works out of a restored historic building near the center of Moscow that was awarded to the group in the first heady years after the Soviet Union's collapse--said she can't say Memorial has much grass-roots backing, a price paid for criticizing a war that remains popular with many Russians.

"At the dawn of Memorial in Moscow, lots of the intelligentsia were with us," she said. "But as early as the first Chechen war [of 1994-96], we lost the feeling of support."

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