After another brutal year in Chechnya, where hundreds of thousands of civilians and over 10,000 Russian soldiers have died in eight years of bloody conflict, six Chechens have won a potentially significant victory over the Russian armed forces. Their triumph came not on the streets of Chechnya's devastated capital, Grozny, nor in traumatized villages like Shaami-Yurt or Katyr-Yurt, but some 3,000 km away, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. For the first time, the court agreed to hear lawsuits brought by ordinary Chechens against the Russian military under the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has signed. The com- plaints, dating from 1999 and 2000, center on allegations of torture, execution and the destruction of personal property, which are covered under the provisions of the Convention. That document also guarantees the right to "an effective remedy before a national authority, not- withstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity."
Having failed to get justice from Moscow, the Chechen plaintiffs are seeking their remedy through Strasbourg. "It is impossible for complainants in Russia to exhaust all the local remedies," says Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, "particularly so for complainants from Chechnya." The Russian government argued the case should not be heard in Strasbourg since there were still domestic remedies to be explored. But the Court said this assertion was so closely linked to the merits of the cases that it, too, should be considered. Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council, the upper house of the federal parliament, said appeals by Chechens to the European Court would not reflect badly on Russia's image, adding: "Any citizen has the right to defend himself this way."
Long a thorn in Russia's side, Chechnya declared independence in 1991, and was granted substantial autonomy in 1996. It has remained a battleground, both with Russia and over human-rights issues. In the cases accepted in Strasbourg, Magomed Khashiyev and Roza Akayeva allege torture and extrajudicial execution of five relatives by Russian troops in Grozny in January 2000; Medka Isayeva and Zina Yusupova say they were wounded and three of Isayeva's relatives killed in an air bombardment of a refugee convoy near Shaami-Yurt in October 1999; Zara Isayeva says that four of her relatives were bombed to death in Katyr-Yurt in February 2000; and Libkan Bazayeva says a car containing her family's possessions was destroyed there in 1999. In all the cases, investigations were opened but no prosecutions resulted; dismissals in two are being appealed. Russia has acknowledged the deaths and damage, but asserts it acted legally under the Law on Suppression of Terrorism.
Can Russia be brought to book if the court rules in the Chechens' favor? "This is a serious and generally effective process," says Bill Bowring, a British lawyer who worked on the lawsuits and is involved in about 15 others for Chechens. If the Russians were ordered to provide compensation, European foreign ministers would urge Russia to reform its laws to prevent future violations. Bowring is coordinator of the new European Human Rights Advocacy Center, based in London. In partnership with the Russian rights group Memorial, the E.U.-funded center will handle many broadly similar suits.
As the legal battles grind on in Strasbourg, Russia is also fighting with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose mandate in Chechnya expired at the end of last year. Moscow refuses to let the small rotating team of OSCE staffers remain. "That was the international presence in Chechnya," a disgusted diplomat told TIME. "And this is what the Russians are pissed off about four people on the ground." Absent a new mandate, the OSCE is to leave Grozny on March 21 giving the locals one less place where their war stories will be heard.