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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Chechens taking Russia to court
Ruined buildings in Grozny
A decade of war has devastated much of the Chechen capital Grozny
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has begun hearings into alleged human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya.

It is the first time the court has agreed to hear cases brought by Chechen civilians against Russia.

It is nearly five years since Russian troops moved back into Chechnya, at the start of what Moscow described as an operation to crush terrorists.

Within weeks, though, there were widespread reports of abuses.

The lawsuits relate to incidents dating back to 1999 and 2000, when the fighting was at its fiercest.

'Tortured and killed'

Six individuals have brought cases against the Russian government, which has denied their right to appeal to the Strasbourg court, claiming they have not exhausted their legal options in Russia.

Five of the civilians were in the courtroom on Thursday to hear lawyers tell a seven-judge panel that Russia had violated their rights under the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

In the first case, two plaintiffs say their relatives were tortured by federal forces and then killed as troops went house-to-house in search of rebel fighters in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in January 2000.

QUICK GUIDE

Three others are claiming that Russian warplanes indiscriminately bombed civilians as they fled Grozny in 1999.

The final case is being brought by a woman who says that her son and three nieces were killed in a bombing raid on their village in February 2000.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they hope the hearings will draw attention to rampant human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"This will be [a] quite important recognition ... that at least some operations in course of the conflict have been conducted in violation of current international law," victims' lawyer Kirill Koroteyev told the Associated Press.

Russia's legal representative at the court, Pavel Laptev, accused the Chechens of organising a "public relations campaign on the basis of the misfortune of others".

The Russian authorities concede that abuses have been committed, but they maintain that offenders are being punished, and that since the start of the conflict the human rights situation in Chechnya has improved.




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