Burning Down the House in Chechnya

by Tanya Lokshina Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and is based in Moscow. 11.12.2014

“If a rebel kills a policeman or another person, his family will be immediately expelled from Chechnya with no right to return, and their house will be razed to the ground.” 

These were the words that Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, used on Instagram last week to signal a large scale return to the illegal policy of collective punishment, in the aftermath of a major rebel attack on the Chechen capital – the first one in many years. “The time when parents weren’t held responsible for the actions of their sons and daughters is over,” Kadyrov said. His intent was unambiguous and his threat anything but empty. Over the last few days, Human Rights Watch received reports of at least six punitive house-burnings in Chechnya. All the victim families are alleged to have close relatives who are insurgents.

This is not the first time Kadyrov has pledged to eradicate the insurgency by unlawfully punishing parents for the deeds of their children. The use of collective punishment against insurgents’ alleged family members – through harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and destruction of their property – has been a hallmark counter-insurgency technique in Chechnya for the past decade. During the last surge in house burnings, from June 2008 through June 2009, Human Rights Watch learned of 27 such cases in different regions of Chechnya and documented 13 of those episodes in its report, “What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You.”  

Back in 2008-2009, the house burnings were evidently inspired by statements by high-level Chechen officials, including Kadyrov personally, about “those families who have relatives in the woods being collaborators in the crime.” At the time, the Russian authorities did nothing to prevent Chechen officials committing such illegal acts or to hold anyone accountable. The wave of house burnings gradually subsided, perhaps due to the outcry by human rights groups and the media. 

Kadyrov’s statements last week are more threatening and specific than those the Chechen leadership made five years ago. Kadyrov has gone as far as ordering that people be summarily expelled from their homes and their homes destroyed. Dozens of civilians’ homes are likely to be deliberately targeted and torched by agents of the state throughout Chechnya in the coming weeks. Kadyrov’s public announcement that he is ordering the commission of widespread criminal acts, which are serious violations of international law and cannot be justified under any circumstances, demands an immediate and effective response from the Kremlin to stop its appointee. If anyone were to publicly announce an intent to carry out a specific attack on civilians in Chechnya, the Kremlin would be expected to respond to prevent it. Kadyrov’s announcement deserves no different.

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Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and is based in Moscow. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored several reports on egregious abuses in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus region and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the 2008 armed conflict in Georgia. Her recent publications include a range of materials on Russia’s vicious crackdown on critics of the government and on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lokshina is a recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award, “Journalism as an Act of Conscience.” Her articles on human rights issues have been featured in prominent Russian and foreign media outlets, including CNN, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Moscow Times, Novaya Gazeta, and the Washington Post. Lokshina’s books include Chechnya Inside Out and Imposition of a Fake Political Settlement in the Northern Caucasus. In 2014, her article on the abusive virtue campaign against women in Chechnya was published in Chechnya at War and Beyond (Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series).

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