On the morning of Feb. 4, 2000, four months into the Second Chechen War, Russian troops hoping to flush out a group of retreating Chechen rebel fighters began pounding the village of Katyr-Yurt with 550-lb. (250 kg) and 1,100-lb. (500 kg) unguided bombs. No prior warning was given to the village’s sleeping residents. “The main Chkalov St. was totally destroyed,” reported the independent Novaya Gazeta from the scene. “Not a single house remains standing.” The destruction of Katyr-Yurt, 25 miles (40 km) from the Chechen capital of Grozny, continued even as villagers tried to flee through a corridor they had been told was safe. Accounts differ, but scores, if not hundreds, were killed and wounded.
A few days later, the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) held a hearing on the attack and found Russian forces and their commanders responsible for the “indiscriminate bombing” of civilians. “Using this kind of weapon in a populated area … without prior evacuation of civilians was impossible to reconcile with the degree of caution expected from a law-enforcement body in a democratic society,” the court’s findings read.
Now, in a move that has sparked outrage from Human Rights Watch (HRW), the officer in charge, Lieut. General Vladimir Shamanov — who is named in the ECHR’s findings — has been chosen to head Russia’s paratrooper unit. “A commander in this position should have a firm commitment to upholding international humanitarian law,” said Holly Cartner, the HRW director for Europe and Central Asia, in a report released on May 28. “It’s hard to understand how an officer with oversight for operations that have resulted in numerous violations of humanitarian law has been considered qualified to assume this role.”
With the announcement of Shamanov’s appointment on May 25, the Kremlin seemed to be sending mixed messages. It’s been little more than a year since President Dmitri Medvedev said in his inauguration speech that he would begin a campaign to increase respect for the rule of law in Russia, stating that he places “particular importance on the fundamental role of the law,” and that “[Russia] must ensure true respect for the law and overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development.”
But considering the ECHR’s ruling on the Katyr-Yurt attack, Shamanov’s new role as head of Russia’s élite airborne troops flies in the face of that promise, says HRW. “Lt. General Shamanov presided over operations fraught with human rights violations and civilian casualties,” HRW states in the report. “He should be investigated, not promoted.”
TIME’s attempts to ask Shamanov and the Russian Ministry of Defense about the ECHR rulings and HRW’s criticism of Shamanov’s appointment got no timely response.
Indeed, Shamanov, who led the 58th Army in Chechnya’s western sector during the Second Chechen War, was investigated by Russian prosecutors after the European court’s ruling — but they concluded that there was no evidence of a crime. Then in December 2008, the Kremlin notified the Council of Europe that it was reviewing the decision. However, it’s unlikely that the investigation will yield any new results.
After serving in Chechnya, Shamanov was decorated a Hero of Russia, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said he “deserve[s] the deepest respect” for his “great contribution to the success of [the] counterterrorist operation [in Chechnya].” Part of that contribution came during operations in the village of Alkhan-Yurt in 1999. In its report, the HRW says that during fighting in the area, “Russian troops under Shamanov’s command committed at least 14 killings that amounted to extrajudicial executions.”
Instead of standing trial, as human-rights groups are demanding, Shamanov will continue to serve as a super-hawk at a time when Russia has been making efforts to assert its place on the world stage though aggressive military actions. Just last week Shamanov said that “airborne troops proved during the five-day war [with Georgia] that they … remain the backbone of Russia’s conventional forces,” according to Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. Previously head of the Ministry of Defense’s combat training command, Shamanov ordered a change in training last year to prepare Russia’s military to fight for the enormous energy resources of the Arctic.
But while Shamanov’s human-rights record is the issue making waves internationally, inside Russia it’s his hawkishness that is causing problems for the country’s leadership. Commenting on his promotion, Shamanov said certain airborne units that were due to be cut under the government’s blueprint to build a smaller, more professional fighting force would instead be kept on, and some would even be expanded — a step off the party line that has upset the Kremlin. (Read “Russia’s Chechnya Pullout: Compromise Over Victory.”)
Shamanov’s promotion may also cause trouble on Russia’s foreign relations front. A year after Medvedev made his speech promising greater respect for the rule of law, a report by human-rights watchdog Amnesty International said that in Russia “impunity prevails” for human-rights violations by the government. Russia may have gained a hardened combat soldier as the leader of its élite forces, but it’s losing international faith in Medvedev’s reforms.