Villagers welcome “unprecedented” verdict from European Court of Human Rights.
Malika Labazanova tells her story quietly, sitting under a canopy in the courtyard of her house, peeling potatoes and not raising her eyes.
The asphalt in the yard is still broken up, a small reminder of what her house and family went through in February 2000. The house itself was burned down and has been rebuilt.
Now Malika, 52, has received a measure of redress from the European Court of Human Rights for all the agony she went through and for the loved ones she lost, but what happened will stay with her forever.
“I will never forget that state of mind – waiting for death,” she said.
On February 5, 2000, Russian soldiers carried out a “mopping-up operation” – the term used for a sweep for rebel fighters – in Novye Aldy, which lies on the fringes of the Chechen capital Grozny.
As they went through the village, the soldiers demanded money and valuables and shot those who did not give them what they wanted.
“How could I have had money?” Malika said. “If we’d had any we would have left. I found just 300 roubles and took off my ear-rings.”
She said a soldier dragged her into the house and put a gun-barrel to her head.
“He was drunk and could barely stand up. I begged him not to kill me and he screamed that if he didn’t kill me, they [other soldiers] would kill him. Then he threw me to one side and fired into the wall and told me not to move.”
Although Malika survived, her husband’s 67-year-old sister, 54-year-old brother and another 47-year-old disabled relative were all killed. Many houses were burned down, including hers.
She remembers that “black snow” fell that day from the torched houses, and from the burning oil wells of nearby Grozny.
“No one was spared, neither people nor animals,” she recalled. “They burned the barns where the sheep and cows were and shouted ‘We have orders to kill you all!'”
Malika said that as the troops approached, the villagers had gone out and asked them not to attack the village.
“One of our villagers, a Russian, walked in front of us with a white flag, and he assured us that nothing would happen to us as he was Russian,” she said, weeping. “He shouted, ‘I’m a Russian, I’m a Russian! Listen to us!’ But they just opened fire on us and shouted at us to go back.”
Fifty six people were killed in Novye Aldy, in one of the worst incidents in Moscow’s second military campaign in Chechnya.
What had happened in the village soon began to attract wider attention, but an official investigation was begun into the killings only a month later.
The villagers said dead bodies lay around for several days and they were afraid to bury them.
“We rigged up a motor to the television, and we watched central [Russian] television and heard that federal units had carried out a special operation to eliminate fighters in the village of Novye Aldy,” said one villager, who did not give her name. “There were corpses lying not far from the television set – I’ll never erase that picture from my mind.”
Malika Labazanov was one of five villagers who took their quest for justice to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with support from the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, EHRAC.
On July 26 this year, the court ruled in favour of the villagers and ordered the Russian government to pay the claimants damages of 143,000 euros.
This was the 13th ruling the Strasbourg court has made against Moscow on a Chechen case. The same day, a married couple, the Musayevs, were also awarded damages in a case involving the abduction and murder of two of their sons by Russian servicemen.
In the Novye Aldy case, the court reprimanded Moscow in unusually strong language, saying that “notwithstanding the domestic and international public outcry caused by the cold-blooded execution of more than 50 civilians, almost six years after the tragic events in Novye Aldy no meaningful result whatsoever has been achieved in the task of identifying and prosecuting the individuals who had committed the crimes”.
Judges said, “In the court’s view, the astonishing ineffectiveness of the prosecuting authorities in this case can only be qualified as acquiescence in the events.”
Philip Leach, the director of EHRAC, said the language used in the ruling was “unprecedented”.
Officials in both Moscow and Grozny have not commented on the verdict – although Russia has criticised the European court for bias in recent times.
Russian parliamentarian Yury Sharandin downplayed the importance of the ruling, telling Interfax news agency, “When a court, including the one in Strasbourg, makes a decision in favour of a citizen, it does not mean at all that the decision is made against his state.”
Despite compelling reports by human rights organisation on the massacre, an investigation by the Russian prosecutor’s office failed to lead to any charges being brought.
Isa Gandarov, a lawyer who represents Memorial and EHRAC in Chechnya, said prosecutors seemed more interested in covering up what had happened than in pursuing those responsible.
“That is confirmed by the fact that not a single individual… has been identified by the investigators and punished over the last seven years, even though we know which security units carried out this so-called ‘mopping-up operation’, and there is irrefutable evidence of their involvement,” said Gandarov.
It is generally believed that the killings were carried out by an OMON special police unit from St Petersburg.
Every year, a group of activists stages a rally in St Petersburg in memory of those who died in Novye Aldy.
“It is shameful and terrible that this crime against people in Novye Aldy was carried out by the Petersburg OMON,” said Yelena Vilenskaya from the organization House of Peace and Non-Violence in the city. “For us, these rallies are a tribute to the innocent victims and an act of repentance.”
Survivors and human rights activists now hope that the European Court’s verdict will lend new impetus to the search for those who were culpable.
“The main goal for the claimants is to get an investigation carried out so that the guilty can be punished within the law,” Shamil Tangiev, the head of Memorial’s Grozny office, told a press conference after the verdict.
Tangiev noted that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe was now responsible for following up the court’s demands for prosecutions in Russian over the Novye Aldy case.
Ibragim Musayev, also from Novye Aldy, has filed a separate case against the Russian government in Strasbourg, but he has yet to get a ruling. Now he is more hopeful.
Four of Musayev’s relatives – his 34-year-old son, 72-year-old cousin and two nephews – were shot that day. “They destroyed everything that moved. [The court ruling] is of huge significance for us – there are just too many irrefutable facts; everything is quite obvious. In the end they will find the guilty and punish them.”
For Malika Labazanova, the judgement has brought a degree of peace.
“When we decided to go to court, we weren’t interested in money,” she said. “When we heard that our complaints had been accepted we felt that something had moved, that there is justice.
“I don’t need anything from them and we aren’t demanding anything. I earn my money honestly. I just want to understand what it was all for.”
By Asya Umarova in Novye Aldy, Grozny
Asya Umarova is a correspondent with Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper..