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North Caucasus: “Persistent pattern of impunity”, reports Commissioner Hammarberg

Strasbourg, 24.11.2009 – "Stability in the North Caucasus region has not been achieved. Increased activity by illegal armed groups, the lack of effective investigations into disappearances and killings, and murders of human rights activists are of particular concern" said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, publishing today his report based on the visit to Chechnya and Ingushetia carried out last September.

The Commissioner points out that while state authorities must protect the public from terrorism and actions of illegal armed groups, counter-terrorism measures should be carried out in full compliance with human rights norms. "The Russian authorities should specify the applicable rules and human rights safeguards for all counter-terrorism operations. Particular care should be taken to prevent the possibility of extrajudicial executions through provision and implementation of precise guidelines governing the use of force."

He further recalls that the response to terrorism must never be allowed to degenerate into acts of torture or ill-treatment. "Human rights standards must be strictly applied in the detention of terrorist suspects and during court proceedings. Access to a lawyer and a doctor should be granted at the outset of custody, and records must be kept whenever a person is deprived of his liberty. In addition, places of detention should be subject to regular independent monitoring. Fair trial guarantees should be respected and any evidence suspected of having been obtained through the use of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment should always be excluded from court proceedings."

The Commissioner urges the authorities to conduct effective and independent investigations into alleged abductions, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, as well as unlawful detention. "Such practices must be eliminated and those responsible brought to justice. A close oversight of security forces in the fight against illegal armed groups is also necessary." Furthermore, he stresses that collective punishment of relatives of alleged terrorists or members of illegal armed groups must be stopped.

The Commissioner highlights the importance of carrying out thorough investigations into past disappearances and identifying the dead bodies buried in the known sites in Chechnya. "It is essential that the exhumation of corpses takes place in an orderly and methodological manner, demonstrating due sensitivity to the relatives concerned. All realistic possibilities for providing sufficient forensic expertise and facilities for the task at hand should be considered."

While serious efforts to reinforce the rule of law are observed, Commissioner Hammarberg considers that further steps should be taken to ensure the desired result of more effective investigations. "Patterns of impunity persist" he said. "Sustained efforts should be pursued to combat corruption in the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. The protection of witnesses during investigations and court cases should also be ensured."

Noting the value of the human rights work performed by non-governmental organisations, the Commissioner strongly emphasises the need to promote safe and favourable conditions for their activities. "The recent murders and violent attacks against human rights activists must be investigated to ensure the criminal accountability and punishment of the perpetrators."

Finally, the Commissioner underlines that robust and coordinated measures against corruption should be taken and further encourages the authorities to persevere in their efforts to improve the socio-economic situation in the region.