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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 16:13 GMT
Rights court to hear Chechen lawsuits
Chechen refugees in Ingushetia
Civilians bear the brunt of the conflict
The European Court of Human Rights has announced that for the first time it will hear lawsuits brought forward by Chechens against the Russian army.

Bodies of Chechen militants near Grozny in January 2000
An estimated 20,000 Chechens have died in the conflict
The landmark ruling paves the way for the Strasbourg-based judges to hear six Chechens argue that Moscow has breached the European convention on human rights it is a signatory to.

The cases accepted by the court on Thursday centre on allegations of torture, summary execution and indiscriminate bombing of civilians in 1999 and 2000.

Russia has been waging what it terms an "anti-terrorist campaign" against a separatist insurgency in Chechnya since October 1999.

Although it has often been criticised over human rights abuses in the province, it is thought the court's decision will nonetheless shock Moscow, which has recently enjoyed a less critical attitude from Western governments.

The Russian authorities are likely to see the court ruling as interference in the country's internal affairs.

Co-operation required

Lawyers for the Russian Government said the complaints should not be heard by the rights court, which usually considers cases only after all domestic avenues have been exhausted.

Russian troops in Chechnya
Russia maintains a large military presence in Chechnya
But the judges rejected this, arguing that criminal investigations opened by the Russian authorities had closed without identifying the culprits.

There are about 100 Chechen complaints still to be investigated by the court, whose decisions are binding.

But their outcome depends on Moscow's co-operation in allowing investigations, including fact-finding missions to Chechnya.

Thousands dead

In its annual report, the US-based Human Rights Watch has described Russia's war in Chechnya as Europe's most intense human rights crisis.

The report, released on Tuesday, said any positive steps at reform in Russia were eclipsed by continued atrocities committed in Chechnya.

Russia has fought two wars to rein in the breakaway republic.

About 20,000 Chechen guerrillas - and 4,500 Russians - have died in the conflict so far.

Russia describes the rebels as terrorists.

Signs that international terrorism is becoming more active in European countries have been interpreted by Russian officials as proof that their policies are correct, a BBC correspondent says.

See also:

16 Jan 03 | Europe
31 Dec 02 | Europe
09 Sep 02 | Europe
23 Apr 01 | Europe
16 Dec 02 | Europe
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