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MHG Report on Human Rights in Russia, 2002
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, 24 2003

The Actions of the Authorities

On October 23rd, 2002, several dozen terrorists seized the Dubrovka theatrical center in Moscow during a jubilee showing of the musical 'Nord-Ost'. Morethan 800spectators and members of the production were taken hostage. Thecrisis lasted two days and three nights. According to the terrorists, the building had been wired with explosives, and if they set off their bombs everyone inside the building would be killed. Themain demand of the terrorists was the cessation of military operations in Chechnya, and the removal of Russian forces from the Chechen Republic.

A number of public and political figures attempted to negotiate with the terrorists, and 98hostages mainly women, children, and foreigners were released. Onthe morning of October 26th, special units of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) carried out an assault on the building, using a special chemical substance (gas). According to official data, 129hostages perished (five at the hands of the terrorists), and all hostages were accounted for1. All41 terrorists were killed. Twohundred special operations soldiers from the FSB anti-terrorism group took part in the assault, and none of these were seriously injured.

In spite of the loss of a significant number of hostages, the Russian authorities characterized the operation as a success, calling the losses inevitable, and brushing off all doubts about the effectiveness of the special operations group and other government agencies.

The Russian interior minister, Boris Gryzlov, stated that the operation was coordinated and effective.

Soon after the assault, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev declared the following: There was information that many died from the effects of the special substance used in the operation. Thisis not so. As proof of this, Mr. Vasilev reported that of the 104victims who had been admitted to War Veteran's Hospital #1, not one had been diagnosed as being poisoned.

FSB director Nikolai Patrushev spoke at length about the coordinated and well-planned work of the agencies.

Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov declared that the hostage rescue operation was conducted brilliantly, while the head of the Chechen administration, Achmad Karyrov, asserted that nowhere in the world has there been an operation conducted as competently and successfully.

Against the background of these statements, the Russian media has also circulated information that makes it difficult to doubt that the operation was anything but well planned and coordinated, as well as beyond reproach. Theassertion that the gas had in no way caused the deaths of a large number of hostages, however, now appears to be completely false.

By October 27th, the chief physician of Moscow, Andrey Seltsovsky, confirmed that almost all the hostages who perished had died from an intoxication with the special gas. Henoted that before the assault began, none of the medical personnel had been informed about the character of the special chemicals used in the course of the operation2. Thegas was not a toxic substance in of itself, but its side effects produced cardiac, respiratory, and circulatory insufficiencies, which were the direct causes of death in all but 5cases.

It is interesting that, even before the operation was carried out, on October 24th (2 days before the assault), the former head of the KGB's 3rd Directorate (military counter-intelligence), Vice Admiral Aleksandr Zhardetskiy, in an interview with Interfax stated that if gas were used on children, as well as those with chronic diseases of the respiratory or cardiac and circulatory systems, then it would practically be a death sentence. Itwould seem that if a retired employee of the security services had this information, then members of the operational headquarters had no reason to be surprised by the condition of the hostages. Inthis situation, the numerous errors made in evacuating and providing first aid to the rescued hostages is inexplicable. After studying interviews with a number of soldiers from the special operations group, and physicians from the Emergency and Disaster Relief Ministry, we have established the following:

Special operations soldiers received no first aid training, especially with regards to positioning people under the influence of the special gas. Anumber of hostages died after being carried from the building and placed flat on their backs, instead of on their sides. Thisled to suffocation.

Following the completion of the military operation, rescue workers were not allowed to participate in the evacuation of the hostages and, as a result, the operation was carried out much more slowly and less competently than it could have been performed.

Rescue workers, in turn, were not warned about the use of the gas, and did not have on hand the equipment and medications needed to provide first aid.

The same can be stated about the emergency physicians on duty at the theatrical center during the hostage rescue operation, especially with regards to the so-called antidotes. Irina Nazarova, chief physician at the All-Russian Center for Medical Catastrophes, commented: We didn't know what special substance was used during the assault. Thata gas was used, we figured that out on the spot3. One of the medics who took part in the rescue of the hostages said: We got ready for traumas from explosives. Asfar as Iknow, there were no special recommendations made to procure any kind of medicines4.

Even the participants in the assault did not receive important information and equipment. Somesoldiers from SOBR MVD(interior ministry special operations group) found themselves overcome by the gas (though to much less an extent than the hostages), when they entered the theater hall.

Some physicians assert that a significant number of hostages were lost due to an insufficient number of medical vehicles, and that the transport of most hostages took place in everyday city buses, which did not allow for rendering aid to patients en route. Others stated that there were enough ambulances, but that the traffic was difficult many various and sundry vehicles got in they way, and blocked one another.

There were errors as well in the organization and sorting of victims by the gravity of their condition (triage). Someof the living were transported with corpses, and scantily-clad hostages were laid out on the cold asphalt at zero degrees.

Nevertheless, at the official level there is neither criticism nor a call to find out the reasons for the errors and lack of coordination between the various agencies. Moreover, the authorities do not find it necessary to conduct an open investigation of the events with public participation. Forits part, the Russian parliament voted against a motion by the SPS party to conduct an official investigation.

The SPS, after receiving the consent of the Russian president, conducted its own investigation anyway. Since the inquiry did not carry an official status, the SPS was unable to subpoena all necessary officials. Nevertheless, the commission's findings concerning the medical rescue operation as a whole agree with the situation described above. Withrespect to the special operations soldiers, the commission was extremely complementary. Fromthe commission's point of view, fault lay with the ministries and departments responsible for social and medical aid to citizens5.

We cannot but agree that government agencies must be ready to deal with the effects of terrorist attacks, but in this specific case it is obvious that one of the basic reasons for the loss of life was due to a lack of coordination between the military and civilian agencies, specifically because the military did not share information necessary for organizing adequate first aid to the victims.

In any event, despite the disconcerting findings of the commission, the authorities have continued to overestimate the success of the hostage rescue operation. Itcannot be because they were unaware of the commission's findings: on November 14th, 2002, Vladimir Putin met with SPS leader Boris Nemtsov and received a summation of the investigation. Inreply, the president stated: What you have said is very close that what Ialready know6.

The above leads us to believe that the operation had but one goal the destruction of the terrorists and prevention of an explosion. Therefore, in spite of the government's statements about the priority of rescuing the hostages, in reality their safety was a secondary consideration7. Without attempting to make recommendations as to how to effectively combat terrorism, we are still forced to state that during the course of the terrorist attack in Moscow on October 2326, 2002, a violation of the right to life took place.

Knowing that many operational errors have come to light thanks to the work of the media, which continuously reported on the events, and through statements by many official and non-official sources, including participants in the operation and negotiators, the authorities now wish to protect themselves from such uncomplimentary reports in the future. Immediately after the terrorist attack, the pro-government factions in the Russian parliament have introduced anti-terrorism legislation that reigns in the media and limits the freedom of speech in situations connected with anti-terrorism operations. Thelaw proposes enlarging a prohibition against broadcasting or publishing anything that can be considered terrorist propaganda or justification for extremist activity in the media during an anti-terrorism operation. Theeffect of such a rule is greater than it would appear at first glance. Remember that the war in Chechnya is formally designated an anti-terrorism operation, which is covered by the anti-terrorism laws. Ifthis rule were to come into force, then any attempt to organize a public discussion in the media regarding the Chechen problem would become illegal. Theparliament and federation council affirmed the amendments to the anti-terror laws with record speed. After realizing that such legislation would be too offensive to free speech, the president responded to a call by the media (including his own government information agencies) to veto the bill as presented. Theamendments, however, did not disappear, but were sent to a coordinating commission, and at the present it is impossible to say with certainty if they will be accepted in a weaker form or remain to hang like a Sword of Damocles over the media. Inany case, journalists have promised the Russian president that they will work out a mechanism of self-regulation with regards to reporting on acts of terror. Onemust note that although we greet attempts at journalistic self-regulation, in this case the media's consensus was obtained through blackmail.

Being incapable of preventing a large terrorist attack in the center of the capital, the law enforcement agencies in Moscow have proven by their usual methods that the ends justifies the means. Following the Moscow apartment blasts in the fall of 1999, there was a wave of checks conducted by the authorities on Moscow residents from the Caucasus. After 'Nord-Ost', the traditional IDchecks on the city streets were supplemented with visits to apartment buildings, where searches and detention of suspicious citizens were carried out. Naturally, the victims of such tactics were mostly Chechens, and the human rights group Civil Assistance recorded 40cases of police abuse of authority. According to the organization's head, Svetlana Gannushkina, there were six instances where criminal cases were brought to court based on fake evidence, usually involving narcotics. Furthermore, there were several cases of Chechens being fired from work, and Chechen children being expelled from school8.

One of the most scandalous cases was the arrest of Yaha Neserhaeva, a Moscow resident from Chechnya. Shewas one of the hostages at the theatrical center, but never revealed her ethnicity to the Chechen terrorists out of solidarity with her Russian girlfriend, with whom she had gone to the musical9. After the assault, she was taken straight from the city hospital to two days detention in Prison Hospital #20, and from there to protective custody. YahaNeserhaeva was fingerprinted, and later photographed and forced to make recordings of her voice. Forten days she was held the maximum allowed by law unless charges are brought. Shewas not questioned, and finally released without explanation. There is reason to believe that Yaha Neserhaeva was only released thanks interest in her case by a number of human rights groups and attorneys.

It is also necessary to mention the arbitrary detention of Alihan Gelagoev, which took place on October 25th, a day before the assault on the theatrical center. According to his testimony, while in the police car after his arrest, Alihan had a bag thrown over his head and he was beaten savagely. During this time they shouted at him: You hate us, and we hate you! We'll destroy you! At the central police station in Moscow, for several hours the police tried to force Gelagoev to sign a previously-prepared confession acknowledging that he was the ideological organizer of the terrorist attack. After having no success, the guards were ordered to release Gelagoev, but only after he had signed a statement that he had voluntarily appeared at the police station and had no complaints against any of the police.

According to data from the Russian polling agency VTsIOM, 30% of Russians believe that the expulsion of Chechens from Moscow and other regions of Russia is the most effective means to provide for the security of the citizenry10. From the point of view of Russian human rights organizations, the authorities have not undertaken adequate measures to provide for the safety of ethnic groups. Following a large-scale terrorist attack, Russian and international experience is that there is inevitably a surge in inter-ethnic tension. Certain public statements by government officials are clearly not helpful in preventing possible excesses. Especially when they suffer from ambiguity, such as Moscow Mayor Luzhkov did when he stated: We in Moscow aren't going to give any nationality special privileges, but at the same time we will not allow a negative relationship with people from the Caucasus.

1 There is information that there is an alternative official list that shows that more than 70victims disappeared without a trace. Inthis case the authorities have not ventured to clear up the situation, and have limited their replies to the officialdata.
2 News.ru. 2002. October 27th.
3 News.ru. 2002. October 28th.
4 Ye. Vrantseva. Sorting according to the principle of living versus dead // Gazeta.ru. 2002. October 29th.
5 Never let such mistakes happen again // www.sps.ru. 2002. October 28th.
S.Parhomenko & A.Ryklin. Amendment to a terrorist attack. // YOZH (Hedgehog), 2002. #46.
7 As indirect confirmation of this conclusion, the events following the assault, when in the interests of the official investigators, data concerning the fates of the hostages was classified, causing panic among relatives. Stress in the community led to the appearance of lists of victims, which were of unproven authenticity.
8 Oppressions of Chechens in Moscow // Prima. 2002. November 5th.
9 The terrorists originally expressed an interest in releasing all Chechens, Georgians, and Abhazians from the theater.
VTSIOM. Muscovites on the seizure of hostages at 'Nord-Ost' / www.wciom.ru. 2002. November 1st.

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