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Interview by Joanne Michele, Advocacy Correspondent for Safe World. April 2011

Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office.

Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Tanya authored reports on rights abuses in Chechnya and Ingushetia and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Georgia in the summer of 2008.

In 2006 Tanya received the Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as Civic Accomplishment.

Her work mainly focuses on Chechnya and the Caucasus. Her books include Chechnya Inside Out and Imposition of a Fake Political Settlement in the Northern Caucasus.

In July 2009 Tanya was on a mission in Chechnya working together with her best friend, award-winning Chechen human rights activist Natalya (Natasha) Estemirova. Natalya was abducted and murdered the day after Tanya finished the mission and returned to Moscow.


What began your interest in human rights? Why did you decide to become an activist?

I would not describe myself as an activist but as a researcher and a journalist.

I was working as a journalist during the huge financial crisis in August 1998. People were laid off or simply not being paid. It was really a chaotic time and there was absolutely no way you could find a job in the media – potential employers would laugh in your face and say 'everyone has been laid off'!

I really did not know what to do and how to support myself when suddenly I learned that a leading Russian human rights organisation, Moscow Helsinki Group, received a large grant from an American donor institution to implement a major multi-year project but didn’t have an English speaker on staff. I had studied in the U.S. for a few years and my English was very fluent, so they hired me without further ado. My first year I kept hoping I could go back to journalism but gradually I was completely "sucked in” to reporting human rights abuses, especially in Chechnya.

It was too awful to drop it.

I felt that, by doing something to stop the abuses, I was manifesting my non-complicity. There was just no other way.

If you have seen something that horrid with your own eyes and are not doing anything to fight it, you are becoming indirectly complicit.

Russia suffered several Chechnya related atrocities (the Beslan School Hostage Crisis and the Moscow Subway bombings, for example). What do you see as the real cause of this and the Black Widow Suicide bombers?

Terrorist attacks in Russia are occurring with increasing frequency and boldness. And violence and lawlessness by law enforcement officials in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus, all those abusive counter-insurgency operations, during which people are abducted and tortured, make it easier for the insurgents to recruit supporters. Without putting an end to rampant impunity for human rights violations in the North Caucasus, Russia will not enjoy security.

Systematic abuses antagonize the population. You cannot effectively fight terrorism unless you enjoy support from the local communities.

When things such as forced disappearances occur, the public views the government as a source of – not an answer to - trouble and the insurgents skilfully use rights abuses by law enforcement officials for their own propaganda, arguing that they can give people the protection the government denies them.

Insurgency in the North Caucasus today appears to be of clearly jihadist nature. The insurgents' short term agenda is to increase tension to oust the local government.

In a long term, they want to impose a Sharia state. 

What is the status of women's rights in Chechnya?

The situation of women in Checnhya is really quite dire.

One of the ways to adequately address the human rights situation in any region is to look into the situation of women.

Women in Chechnya face discrimination and are denied some of their basic rights.

One example is the enforced compulsory Islamic dress code. We released a report on this issue recently, this very spring. The report documents vicious attacks at women who were reluctant to wear headscarves. Dozens of women were shot at from paintball guns in Chechnya's capital last summer.

There is also a high rate of bridal kidnappings and domestic abuse. Women are prevented from leaving abusive marriages because the children will most likely be awarded to the man in the case of a divorce.

The status of women was actually higher during the years of armed conflict.

Throughout the duration of the Second Chechen War, it was the women who risked going out into the streets to find food for their families. They were courageously searching for their disappeared sons, brothers, husbands...  When the hostilities subsided, the authorities decided they wanted to “put women in their right place.”

The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was directly appointed by the Kremlin, has stated in an interview that a man is a master and women are to be subservient.

He has said, “I have the right to criticize my wife but she does not have the right to criticize me.”  This sends a message to young men in Chechnya today, that they are to treat women this way and it is right. He has openly said he wants all women to wear headscarves.

With regard to the paintball attacks on women who wouldn’t wear headscarves, he said that if he found the individuals responsible for the attacks (law enforcement and security officials were among the perpetrators) he would give them an award.

He said that the women who were shot at deserved to be treated that way. This is a clear signal of encouragement for these barbaric tactics.

The Kremlin does nothing to reign Kadyrov in, although his "headscarf policy" is contradictory to freedom of religion and nondiscrimination as granted by the Russian constitution.

The Kremlin supports Kadyrov and gives him a green light to do anything he wants in Chechnya in exchange for his formal pledges of loyalty to the Russian Federation and his ability to relatively suppress insurgent forces. “The only law which exists which exists in Chechnya today are his orders.”

How is the human rights situation in Chechnya? In Russia?

You can’t really talk about people enjoying any rights in Chechnya because the abuses are so rampant.

People are abducted, disappeared, tortured and killed on mere suspicion of involvement with the insurgency.  Law enforcement and security servicemen go after relatives of alleged insurgents, to force insurgents to surrender. They burn the homes of such families, persecute them in different ways. The Chechen authorities propagate collective responsibility by insisting that parents have to "pay for sins of their sons".  And local law enforcement officials use collective punishment practices widely and with complete impunity.

To date, the European Court of Human Rights has delivered over 160 judgements on cases from Chechnya, finding Russia responsible for violating some key articles of the European Convention of Human Rights, including the right to life, the absolute ban on torture and cruel and degrading treatment and the guarantee of effective domestic remedies for the victims.

The Russian government paid financial compensation to the individual applicants in accordance with the Court's rulings but it has not taken any substantial measures to prevent future violations or investigate the actual crimes.

The European Court is not about money!  It exists to make sure that all the members of the Council of Europe comply with the requirements of the European Convention of Human Rights.  This lack of effective implementation of all those Chechnya rulings results in new similar cases being lodged with the Court.

There is a climate of intense fear that prevails in Chechnya today.  I've been doing human rights research there for nine years. During the war, the human rights crisis was frightening – there were bombings and shelling, and the number of casualties was incomparably higher than today – but back then people were not afraid to speak up.

When you arrived in a village in your capacity as a journalist or activist, you almost didn’t know where to turn.  People swarmed us wanting to talk.  They wanted the world to know about the injustice done to them, their families, their villages – even if we couldn’t help them individually. It was very powerful.

Now, when you learn an individual was abducted by a group of law enforcement officials, you travel to the village and people often refuse to speak at all for fear of repercussions.

Their reluctance is understandable, of course. When families do launch official complaints with the help of human rights organisations, law enforcement officials tell them to withdraw them, “or else.”

I’m not denying the miracle of Chechen reconstruction.  Its capital, Grozny, which was practically levelled with the ground, is vibrant now with entertainment centres and cafes.  It’s a changed city.  There are no traces of war on the surface but we cannot ignore what happens behind the scenes.

Whatever happens in Chechnya and the North Caucuses is not only indicative of the human rights situation there, but in the country as a whole.

The lack of effective investigation into the abuses by law enforcement and security officials is a problem in all of the Russian regions.  What makes Chechnya unique is that the law enforcement and security forces are de facto controlled by the leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

It’s also important to understand that there is a “Chechnization” of the Russian police.  Innumerable police officers from across Russia had to serve in Chechnya for up to six months at a time, travel there repeatedly and acquire the ‘habit’ of violence and lawlessness, which they do not shake off upon return back to their home towns.

Why is this violence by state security forces spreading?

The crimes that are being perpetrated were bound to spill out.

Violence and lawlessness cannot be localized.  The key outcome of the Second War in Chechnya was the emergence of a jihadist militant underground across the North Caucasus region.

The insurgents' jihadist orientation is part of the reason for Kadyrov to make such an emphasis on Islam.  The government mentality is as follows: “so rebels are claiming to be true Muslims. We will show that we are the real Muslims here by imposing Islamic law while fighting the insurgents at the same time."

How can the international community act to raise awareness about women's rights and prevent Chechnya from becoming a fundamentalist society?

We have to raise awareness about this unacceptable situation.

We must make sure that whenever Russian officials are included in an international forum they are asked questions about Chechnya.

We have to remind the Russian international partners that the human rights situation in Chechnya should be a priority on their agenda.

What is the role of women's rights activists in Russia? Does the government tolerate their work? In what ways, if any, do you feel restricted?

I know some absolutely courageous women’s rights activists in Russia and Chechnya.

Though in Chechnya the climate of fear is overwhelming.  After Natalya Estemirova, who was a true champion for the rights of women,  was abducted and killed in 2009, everyone is frightened.

Many local activists quietly help victimized families under the table and take care not to publicize their activities, not to lodge any official complaints, not to talk to the media.

Is this kind of quiet advocacy effective? Does the work have its own momentum?

It’s really important to have public support –  for the activists as well as for the victims. They need to know there are a lot of people behind them who want them protected.

But as concerns quiet advocacy as such, those engaged in it are sometimes able to help a victim, even to save a human life - for example, by successfully negotiating for the release of an abducted man on the condition of absolute silence.  However, it is impossible to change the actual abusive, lawless system if you don't go public with such horrid stories, if you don't fight for justice using legal, judicial channels.

Are there female political prisoners in Russia?

Human Rights Watch doesn’t 'award' people the status of political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.  Still, there are many politicized cases that we come across, and not only in the Northern Caucuses.

The key issue is the lack of free media.  Television and other major media are state-controlled.  There are very few independent media and their circulation is not sufficient to reach out to a broad audience.

It’s therefore difficult for the human rights activists and independent journalists to transmit their information widely enough to be heard by the public at large and have a significant impact on Russia's policies.

Well it seems to be the women who are always putting themselves at risk by speaking out. Do you think that women in the region are braver than the men?

I would not make any comparison but women often show civic responsibility and true courage.

For example, with the enforcement of headscarves in Chechnya, - women have to comply out of fear, but it’s not fear for their own security. They comply to protect their families.

Women say,"If it were up to me, individually, no one could have forced me to wear a headscarf.  But if I am publicly shamed for refusing, my husband and father and brothers cannot leave it alone – they will go after the perpetrators and may be hurt or killed - so I'd rather undergo this humiliation for the sake of their security."

Can you recount your memories of Natalya (Natasha) Estemirova's murder? What you heard and how you felt? Are you afraid to continue your work?

She was a very close friend.

Whenever I came to Chechnya I stayed with Natasha.  And it so happened that I was staying at her place and working with her during the last week of her life as well…  Then, I hopped on a plane and safely landed in Moscow. The next day she was killed.

The perpetrators have not been brought to justice for killing her or any of the other activists murdered in the North Caucasus.

On one hand it’s a very personal tragedy because she was a close friend. It was a huge shock.  She travelled to Moscow for Anna [Politkovskaya]’s funeral [in 2006] and I travelled to Chechnya for hers.

She was an amazing woman –she was funny, beautiful, smart and a pleasure to be with. It wasn’t just that she was courageous and working around the clock to help people - though she was.

Natasha's death was a huge blow to human rights in Chechnya, to all of her friends and colleagues, and to all the innumerable people that she gave assistance to.

Now we try to encourage victims in Chechnya to file complaints, some of them say, “You could not even protect your own Natasha, so how can you protect us? We'd rather keep everything quiet.”

Local activists, too, are crushed and fearful.  She was the only one for a long time who dared publicly, openly, raise awareness about the law enforcement and security’s abuses in Chechnya.

Others were quietly reporting on the situation too, but she was doing it under her own name and this proved to be lethal.  She was murdered and this gap cannot possibly be filled.

I heard people saying, "by killing Natasha, they killed human rights work in Chechnya."

Her organization, Memorial, had to suspend their activities in Chechnya for half a year for security reasons and had to evacuate several of their key staff from Russia altogether. It was a huge challenge for Memorial just to resume activities and they could not do it on their own in this hostile environment.

So, a joint mobile group of Russian human rights organizations was formed.  Activists from different regions of the country, mostly human rights lawyers, started coming to Chechnya for several weeks on rotation –three people at a time - to work on such sensitive cases as torture and disappearances by local law enforcement officials… only outsiders would touch these cases - they were just too dangerous for local activists to get involved in.

It’s been this way since December 2009. And in fact, in March this year, the Mobile Group received the annual Human Rights prize from the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe for its immensely courageous work.

What are the major issues you're working on now?

Officially I am a Russian researcher for Human Rights Watch but the crisis in the North Caucasus is so profound that I devote most of my time to it.

I recently authored a report on the situation of women in Chechnya, the headscarf policy and other violations of their rights. Now I'm working on a report on counter-terrorism related human rights abuses in Dagestan, another republic in the North Caucasus.

How does your family feel about your work?

My husband is a leading expert on ultranationalists in Russia so he certainly understands the challenges.

His work is more possibly dangerous than mine!

I feel privileged if compared to my colleagues from Russian human rights group because Human Rights Watch is a large international organisation with substantial resources and can do a lot to protect me.

Does international attention to the murders of Natasha and Anna Politkovskaya help with your work?

After Anna - no doubt she was killed because of her work and the perpetrators in her murder have not been held to account - the small community of independent journalists and activists whose work is focused on the Northern Caucus realised the full degree of their vulnerability.

The thinking was, “she was a star. If that was not enough to protect her, what about the rest of us?”  Natasha was also very well known.  She travelled to major human rights for a outside of Russia and received several international awards, including the annual award of Human Rights Watch in 2007.

It's incredibly difficult for us to work without Anna and without Natasha.  At the same time we owe it to them to continue the struggle for human rights and justice, the very struggle for which they paid with their very lives.


Human Rights Watch: Tanya Lokshina

Memorial: Who and What Is Memorial?

Memorial on Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Natalya Estemirova

Wikipedia: Assassination of Anna Politkovskaya


Human Rights Watch on Twitter: @hrw

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