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Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring the current political situation in Chechnya to the attention of the House, following my visit there last year with Lord Judd, to examine the human rights situation. Sadly, since I secured the debate, the instability of the Caucasus has once again risen high on the news agenda, following Monday’s deadly suicide bomb attack at the airport in Moscow. Police sources say that the bomb bears the hallmarks of past attacks carried out by Chechens and other Islamic separatists from the Caucasus.

In 2009 Moscow declared that the situation in Chechnya had normalised, marking the end of its military operations in the republic. However, Chechnya and the north Caucasus region face a constant battle against terrorist insurgency, which, far too often, the world seems to ignore. From 2002 the parliamentary all-party group on human rights was keen to send a fact-finding mission to Chechnya. The eight-year delay is testament to the challenge of getting the permission of the Foreign Office and the Russian and Chechen authorities, all at the same time. I and Lord Judd want to thank Nicole Piché from the group, who organised the visit and accompanied us. Without her tenacity over eight years it would never have happened. We also thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials here and in Moscow for their assistance and advice—particularly Iain Frew and Elena Arganat, who came with us to Chechnya. Their knowledge, insight and translation of both language and culture were invaluable.

I should like to draw attention to several issues of concern about the political situation in Chechnya: the security situation, and in particular the danger of young people being driven to extremism out of desperation; the regular human rights abuses, such as the house burnings and disappearances, of which we sadly heard tales during our visit; and the sinister and oppressive Chechen regime, with no accountability or judicial process, and a culture of impunity. I fear that all those problems will only continue, and indeed will get worse, before the international community understands that Chechnya is a destabilising sore, which is infecting the whole region. I hope that the Government will recognise the danger of Chechnya’s situation and the importance of engagement with Russia, the EU and the wider international community to address it.

I want first to discuss the security situation. Last autumn’s siege of the Chechen Parliament, when Islamic militants killed two police guards and four rebels died, hit the headlines all over the world. The suicide bombing of the Moscow metro in March 2010 brought Chechnya’s “black widows” to international attention; the suspected perpetrators of the attacks were Chechen women who had lost husbands to the Russian military. However, such news attention on terrorist attacks for a few short days only plays into the hands of the militants, who relish the publicity. Instead a sustained and focused effort is needed to deal with the underlying problems of corruption and oppression.

Many in Moscow, and possibly beyond, may cling to the false notion that the security problems can be contained by President Ramzan Kadyrov’s authoritarian regime. Keeping the population in check through a climate of fear and repression and the brutal crushing of dissent is fuelling tension. State-sponsored murder creates martyrs. A combination of desperation and revenge is driving some, often young, Chechens to what they see as the only alternative—the extremist cause. Kadyrov’s Administration have justified some of their brutal acts on the grounds that they are fighting terrorists, who also use brutal means. However, the boundaries have become blurred between terrorists and dissidents. I do not think I am being cynical if I say it suits the regime for it to be so easy to silence any critics by denouncing them as terrorists.

The main focus of our trip was to investigate the human rights situation, in response to reports of appalling violations. On several occasions, we met the relatives of those who had been beaten, abducted and locked up in a far-flung prison on some trumped-up charge or who had disappeared. House burnings were another cruel tactic that was used. One woman placed three photographs in my palm. They were of her brother, her son and her daughter, all of whom had been killed or were missing. The fear was palpable. Speaking out about these abuses, even in a so-called private meeting, carries a real risk of reprisals that could see other family members being abducted, tortured or worse. I understand why so many people keep quiet in fear. I am in awe of the courage of those who speak out, through their grief, to try to secure justice, however slight the chance. In this context, the work of non-governmental organisations in protecting and promoting human rights is absolutely vital, although they operate in a very dangerous environment.

In July 2009, leading human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted in Grozny, and found later near the border with Ingushetia with gunshot wounds to her head. The Estemirova murder sent shock waves through the NGO community in Chechnya, and her employer, Memorial, had to suspend its Chechen operations for several months on safety grounds. There is a wilful misunderstanding by the Chechen authorities of what the “N” in NGO stands for. The very concept of an organisation that is independent of Government—or non-governmental—openly challenging policies and practice seems anathema to them. Their preference is for NGOs to be subsumed into Government, thus removing any semblance of transparency.

President Kadyrov has suggested that Memorial should change its working methods. Instead of making cases public, he thinks it should tell him personally about the problems so that he can just solve them quietly. Forgive me for thinking that that is not a solution to the problems.

Human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, who is charged with championing human rights in Chechnya, has asserted that he is “independent of other authorities”, but in our meeting with him, he flatly refused to discuss any allegations that implicated the President, so, despite his protestations, he was clearly far from independent.

During our meeting I literally could not believe my ears—I even challenged the translator in case there had been a misunderstanding—when Nukhazhiyev told us that Oleg Orlov of Memorial had “benefited” from Natalya Estemirova’s murder. With the champion of human rights in Chechnya behaving in such a way, it is not surprising that people despair.

Memorial’s status as a truly independent NGO means that it has attracted the ire of the Chechen regime. In July, President Kadyrov went so far as to say it was an enemy of the people, the law and the state. That accusation is more appropriately levelled at President Kadyrov himself. The international community must assist NGOs and human rights defenders who are taking great risks to document and improve the situation in Chechnya. We must defend their right to do their vital work. When the lives of prominent human rights defenders or journalists are threatened, we should be open to applications for asylum. We do not wish to see more cases like that of Natalya Estemirova or Anna Politkovskaya.

I am pleased to say that in October, MEPs voted to endorse a resolution defending Memorial, and condemning the

“cynical and absurd attempts to implicate it in the crime of aiding terrorist organisations.”

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will continue to press our EU friends to recognise the significant human rights problems in Chechnya and use European institutions to bring pressure to bear on Moscow to act.

The human rights violations in Chechnya are compounded by the lack of transparency and accountability of the regime, and the absence of any meaningful justice process and rule of law. The personality cult around Kadyrov is unbelievable. Every public building in Grozny displays large photographs of the President, and the TV news would be funny if it was not actually real. Back at our hotel, we watched the evening bulletin and it was almost entirely composed of positive news stories about what the President had been up to that day, with no debate, opposition or criticism.

On the day the President was far too busy to meet with Lord Judd and me as scheduled, the TV news told us that he had been opening a furniture shop—urgent business indeed. We might complain about this country’s press and media, and as politicians we perhaps do so more often than others, but a free press is essential to a free democracy. Journalists in Chechnya continually walk the difficult line between trying to report the news in line with their journalistic principles and not angering the regime so as not to risk their lives.

Kadyrov and his Government face no parliamentary scrutiny: 37 of Chechnya’s 41 MPs belong to the same party, and the Parliament meets infrequently. The President is keen to promote a climate of fear, and in a recent broadcast said:

“I am looking for evildoers everywhere. If two people meet, the third among them will always be one of my men. I know everything. I hear everything.”

That is truly chilling, like something out of a George Orwell novel.

In relation to the very clear impact on human, political and democratic rights, there is the issue of religious freedom. A great many people have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Did the hon. Lady have an opportunity to speak to any such people, who perhaps out of fear did not make themselves known to her? I am aware of a great many Churches and groups of people who are experiencing religious persecution and discrimination. What should we do about that, and what could the Government do in representing those people?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valid point, but in a short debate it is impossible to cover every aspect of what we saw on our visit. It was a short visit, but we did see some evidence of a lack of religious freedom, particularly with the forced Islamisation. There were simple things, such as Chechen women being forced to wear headscarves in Government buildings. The Minister of Information told us that they chose to wear them, but it was very clear when we spoke to women elsewhere that it was a rule. I am sure that many religious minorities in Chechnya experience persecution, and I hope that our Ministers are pressing hard on that issue with the Russian authorities. Religious freedom, free access to justice and a free media are absolutely essential, and are part of the underpinning of a democratic society, but sadly they are far too lacking in this troubled state.

The judicial system faces similar problems. Cases are opened for show purposes, but proper investigations are not completed. In 2009, 39 cases involving the abduction of 43 individuals were opened, but no one knows how many resulted in convictions; when we met with the prosecutors they did not have that information—it was not collected. That sounds like one of the absolutely worst parliamentary answers that we get in this place, and which we do not stand for. It is not recorded how many of the cases involved the Chechen security services, or how many disappearances go unreported for fear of further persecution. Of course, most human rights violations do not get reported because of the safety concerns that put many people off the juridical route. Even providing a witness testimony could lead many to fear the consequences, and the witness protection scheme has a fatal flaw in that the security forces that are supposed to safeguard the witnesses are often the very people accused of the abuses.

Chechnya and the Caucases have for far too long been too low down the international community’s priority ladder. The UK has not only a responsibility for, but a long-term interest in preventing the contagion of militant insurgency from spreading. It cannot be overstated that when human rights are protected and are a key priority for the Government, opportunities for extremist recruiters are greatly diminished and terrorist threats recede. The choice is not between human rights and fighting terrorism; safeguarding human rights is essential in the fight against terrorism. The risk in Chechnya and its neighbouring states is very much that the oppressive regimes will provide a fertile breeding ground for the terrorists of tomorrow, and we must therefore assist both the Russian and the Chechen authorities, if they will let us, to improve the environment within the republic. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government plan to assist and strengthen the work of human rights organisations and civil society in Chechnya. We clearly need to ensure that, through the European Court of Human Rights, individual Chechens have the ability to bring cases against the Russian authorities, and that they receive the due process of justice.

We must also press Russia to take its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe more seriously, particularly in relation to the judgments handed down against it by the European Court of Human Rights—it should not be allowed to get away with ignoring those. In general, we should encourage Russia and the Chechen authorities to allow increased access to Chechnya for foreign delegations, international organisations and independent media and NGO representatives. Most of all, Russia needs to recognise that the brutal oppression of the Chechen people is not a solution to the security threat that it undoubtedly faces.

Our Government should do all they can to assist Russia in dealing with this difficult internal problem, even if it is just encouragement to pursue a course of action that puts the people first and rejects the fallacy of security under the draconian Kadyrov regime. We must help to convince Russia that the need for genuine engagement with the international community and its Chechen citizens is in its own long-term interests. I hope that the Minister and his FCO colleagues will be working hard to that end.

First, I join the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in extending my condolences and sympathy to those affected by the appalling attack at Moscow airport on Monday, in which a British citizen lost his life. The Prime Minister has offered his condolences and support directly to President Medvedev and the Foreign Secretary has written to Foreign Minister Lavrov. The British people stand with the Russian people at this tragic time. People around the world will have been shocked by the pictures that they saw on their televisions on Monday.

Let me also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing the debate, which is particularly timely given the circumstances, but would be important at any time. We do not yet know for certain who was responsible for the attack in Moscow and it would be wrong to leap to the assumption that the perpetrators came from the north Caucasus region. However, preliminary indications from the Russian authorities show that there might indeed be such a connection. As we know, Russia has experience of terrorism related to the north Caucasus region.

The House is well aware of my hon. Friend’s long-held interest in Chechnya. We all benefit from her comprehensive knowledge and active approach in addressing the very serious issues faced by the people living in the region, which she expanded upon forcefully this morning. It is right that we support the efforts of the Russian Government to tackle terrorism. We welcome President Medvedev’s initiatives to address the underlying socio-economic conditions in the north Caucasus. Those conditions can provide fertile ground for extremist ideology. As the report of my hon. Friend’s visit to Chechnya noted, the reconstruction of Grozny is a notable achievement, but reconstruction alone does not create stability. A long-term solution to the region’s problems can be built only on a foundation of respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The fact-finding visit that my hon. Friend went on with Lord Judd on behalf of the all-party group on human rights in February last year helped bring home to the House the situation in that troubled part of the world. The FCO was pleased to provide financial and administrative support for the visit. I appreciated the time that she and Lord Judd took to meet me in September to discuss their findings from that visit. Their report was an important contribution to the debate over the situation in Chechnya. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government share the concerns highlighted in the report, particularly the strong evidence of ongoing abductions, torture, punitive house burnings, and attacks on human rights defenders, in which the local Chechen security forces are often implicated.

The lack of effective investigations into human rights abuses perpetuates a climate of impunity. In particular, the Government are deeply concerned that, after a year and a half, the investigation into the murder of Natalya Estemirova in the north Caucasus in July 2009 has not produced any results. We also share the report’s other key observation that counter-terrorism strategies that do not observe human rights serve only to perpetuate the poor security situation. Human rights in Chechnya, and in the north Caucasus more widely, remain a serious concern to the UK.

Although Chechnya might be more stable today than in the recent past, that stability has come at a price. Today Chechnya is a place where too many people are unable to exercise their human rights; a place where freedom of expression and speech are curtailed; and a place where civil society is unable to contribute in the way in which it should to a functioning democratic system.

One of the reasons that Britain regularly engages with Russia on human rights issues is to address those concerns. During his visit to Moscow last October, the Foreign Secretary met representatives of civil society and made the case for human rights, rule of law and impunity issues with the Russian Government. The Foreign Secretary will do so again when he meets Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on his visit to the UK next month.

Discussing our concerns in an open way and seeking to find constructive ways to co-operate with the Russian authorities in addressing the problems that they face is an integral part of our bilateral relationship. Just last week, the UK held its human rights consultations with Russia in Moscow. During those negotiations, senior UK officials underlined specific concerns, including those about Chechnya and the north Caucasus. There were constructive discussions on socio-economic development in the north Caucasus; on pursuing counter-terrorism strategies while protecting civil liberties; on nationalism and ethnic violence, and strategies for combating such violence; on implementation of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in cases that refer to abuses in the north Caucasus; and on women’s rights in Chechnya, which my hon. Friend mentioned in her speech. We will look for ways to continue that dialogue and to offer further opportunities for the Russian authorities to share experience, if they would find it useful to do so.

More widely, the UK has also raised concerns about the conduct of the Khodorkovsky trial; the death in pre-trial detention of Sergei Magnitsky; the stalled investigations into the murders of two defenders of human rights, Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova; the death penalty; freedom of assembly, which my hon. Friend mentioned in discussing the wider context of the oppression of people, as she described it, in Chechnya; and the protection of gay rights and the rights of other minorities in society. So there is a wide range of concerns that we raise directly in that forum of our human rights consultations with Russia.

The Minister outlined a number of concerns that the Government have. In relation to the religious persecution and discrimination that is taking place, has he made any representations to the Russian Government about that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was not present at those discussions in Moscow myself and I have not been supplied with information about that issue. However, I can assure him that we take very seriously concerns about religious persecution in all parts of the world and those concerns are expressed in ways that I am sure he would support; they are expressed forcefully and directly to Governments and other bodies in countries where we feel that religious freedom of expression is infringed. That religious freedom of expression includes the right to practise a religion, the right to change one’s religious affiliation and the right to hold no religious beliefs if that is what an individual wishes to do.

Therefore, if the Foreign Office feels that discussion of that issue is a necessary part of a dialogue with any country or any organisation within a country, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will include that component in talks. If he knows of specific cases or specific parts of the world where he feels we could increase our focus in that regard, I make the offer to him that he can let me, or another Minister in the Department, know and we will seek to act on his concerns.

The UK also actively works with the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe to bring our combined political weight to bear on pressing human rights issues. The Russian Government have so far declined the Council of Europe’s repeated offers of technical assistance with the exhumation of mass graves in connection with the two Chechen wars. However, should they change their view on that, the UK is ready to consider any request we receive for assistance.

In addition, we support a wide range of human rights organisations working in Chechnya and Russia as a whole. Therefore, the active role of the British Government is not merely—although I do not want to understate it—based on the relationship between our Ministers and officials and those of Russia. We are also keen to help more directly at the grass-roots level. We have funded projects aimed at preventing and resolving conflict in the north Caucasus; at encouraging free and fair elections; at supporting an independent media, which was a point that my hon. Friend made forcefully, based on her direct experience during her visit; and at improving policing and prison conditions.

The United Kingdom worked with the Russian NGO Committee against Torture to facilitate independent investigations into allegations of torture. The evidence that resulted from those investigations led to prosecutions in Chechnya and entrenched local courts’ knowledge and use of human rights law.

The UK has funded other Russian and international NGOs to assist applicants taking cases of human rights abuses through national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. In 2010, the European Court handed down judgments in favour of 17 applicants supported by organisations that we help to fund, and more than €1,720,000 in damages were awarded to them.

The UK supports the activities of local civil society organisations in building stability and cross-border co-operation in the region. For example, Nonviolence International used UK funds to develop a comprehensive model of co-operation between youth and law enforcement officers, helping to build trust and create the grass-root conditions for long-term stability. The UK continued to support the work of the independent media agency, Caucasian Knot, which provides balanced and objective online media reporting of news from across the Caucasus region, and offers local citizens a forum in which to report directly and express their views.

In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to discuss the issues on a formal basis. The issues continue to concern this Government and we continue to engage with them, both bilaterally with the Russians and with our colleagues in the United Nations, the European Union and other international organisation. I assure all hon. Members that this Government place the strongest emphasis on human rights. The Foreign Secretary has addressed the subject specifically, repeatedly and strongly during his time in office, and we will continue to place a strong emphasis on Britain taking a lead on projecting around the world, including Chechnya and Russia as a whole, the values upon which we in this House place great importance.

Sitting suspended.