MOSCOW — In the first broad effort to curb "disappearances" and other abuses in occupied Chechnya, Russian military leaders issued new instructions ordering troops to treat civilians politely, identify themselves during raids and keep public records of all detainees, officials said Friday.
In announcing the new rules, known as Order 80, the commander of Russia's armed forces in the separatist republic acknowledged for the first time that disappearances are an endemic problem.
"We are raising the responsibility of all officials so people will not go missing without a trace," said Lt. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, who signed the order. "There are facts showing that innocent or not-so-innocent people have gone missing during special operations--either through the fault of individual commanders or others who conducted these operations."
Human rights groups welcomed Moltenskoi's comments. But they cautioned that it remains to be seen whether the new rules will increase military accountability or whether--coming more than two years after the occupation began--they are too little too late.
"All of this has been promised before, and most of it is already in Russian law," said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "You can produce laws and decrees, but in the end it all comes down to implementation. Right now, soldiers and officers don't really feel there is a real chance they will be prosecuted if they break the law."
Human rights groups and Chechen civilians have long complained about so-called document sweeps or "mopping up" operations in which Russian troops go door to door interrogating and detaining men they suspect of having links to rebels. Military officials said they have changed tactics and now conduct only "targeted" special operations.
Lohman noted that after several controversial sweeps last summer, Moltenskoi ordered that military officials give local civilian authorities a list of all people detained in such operations. However, Human Rights Watch has documented the disappearance of more than 50 people since then.
"We've found there is a selective approach to recording those detained," Lohman said. "The only people on the list are the people who've been released."
Under the new rules, soldiers entering a household are required to identify themselves and their rank and state the reason for the search. Civilian legal authorities, clergy and journalists are allowed to observe. Lists of those detained must be delivered to local authorities along with information about their place of confinement. And, except in rare instances, soldiers are not allowed to wear ski masks or otherwise disguise themselves. Their vehicles must carry registration numbers.
"[The order] stresses that internal investigations and those by prosecutors have revealed facts of looting, verbal abuses, rudeness and abuse of power on the part of federal servicemen," said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir V. Putin.
Russian troops entered Chechnya in 1999 after rebels, who had controlled the republic since 1996, were blamed for a series of bombings that killed about 300 people in Russia. Since then, the military has reoccupied nearly the entire republic, and it conducts frequent operations to find rebels hiding amid the civilian population.
Yastrzhembsky said Russian authorities have done their best to investigate reported abuses: 33 servicemen have been convicted of various crimes, and 62 others face trial, 12 of them on murder charges.
However, human rights groups say Russian authorities have dragged their feet in many of the investigations and that the number of prosecutions is a small fraction of the number of cases documented.
Yastrzhembsky accused Human Rights Watch and other groups of relying on unverified information. And Vsevolod Chernov, the chief prosecutor in Chechnya, insisted again Friday that uniformed gunmen who commit abuses are actually Chechen rebels disguised as Russian soldiers.
Human rights groups have questioned such assertions, noting that many of the troops arrive in armored vehicles, and that any armored vehicles belonging to rebel forces were destroyed early on in the conflict.
The human rights group Memorial described the new rules as meeting their "minimal demands."
"If Order 80 is implemented and observed, it could help prevent many serious crimes against peaceful residents of Chechnya and significantly improve the human rights situation . . . " the group said in a statement. "However, serious improvement will only occur if wide-scale 'sweep' operations are curbed."