Kubachi – settlement in Dahadaevskiy district of Dagestan, Russia, by Max Avdeev

A growing number of abductions and forced disappearances in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, presumably linked to Russia’s efforts to improve security before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, have raised concerns among human rights groups. Between January and October 2013, men in unmarked cars abducted fifty-eight people in Dagestan, nineteen of whom have yet to resurface. Russian security forces have abducted suspected militants in the region for decades. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR, Court) issued two separate judgments finding violations of both the people who disappear and their families’ human rights.

According to a 2013 report released by the International Crisis Group, the North Caucasus is currently home to the most violent armed conflict in Europe. In 2012, an estimated 1,225 people were killed or wounded, and the first half of 2013 indicates a continuation of that trend. Disputes over boundaries and resources are exacerbated by ethnic and religious tensions and the region’s lack of integration with the rest of the Russian Federation. Further, the report indicates that law enforcement personnel have committed years of abuses in connection with recent electoral violations, which has led to distrust of the Russian government and undercut counter-terrorism efforts. Contributing to the dangerous atmosphere, the main Islamist terrorist group in the region, the Caucasus Emirate, publicly called for attacks at the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi. In response to the threat of terrorism, the military and Interior Ministry began a harsh crackdown on suspected militants in January, according to human rights groups. Regional analysts contend that security forces employ tactics such as forced disappearances and torture as part of these efforts. 

Numerous relatives of young men abducted between the late 1990s and 2005 filed applications to the ECtHR, alleging Russian security forces were responsible for the disappearances and that the Russian government failed to properly investigate. In response to the high volume of applications, the ECtHR began jointly hearing cases in Aslakhanova and others v. Russia, which was decided in December 2012. Two additional judgments on joint applications were decided in October 2013, and more cases are pending. In all of the decided cases, the Court found that Russia violated the right to life, guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), of all the disappeared men. In addition, the Court also found Russia violated the rights of the applicant family members by causing them to suffer inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the ECHR) and by failing to afford them access to an effective remedy for the violations (Article 13 in combination with Article 2 of the ECHR). As a result of these violations, the ECtHR awarded the applicants both pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages.

Despite the ECtHR’s judgment against Russia, rights groups contend that these disappearances, and a systematic failure to investigate them, persist. Gagzhimurad Omarov, a former member of parliament from Dagestan, argues that the government has not provided independent courts to effectively prosecute those responsible for the disappearances. Omarov claims that, instead, Putin has relied on appointing local officials and charging them with a zero-tolerance policy toward militants in Dagestan. When young men go missing or are abducted, family members claim that these officials rebuff inquiries and refer to the victims as rebel fighters. Further, rights groups allege many of the disappearances are the work of local officials and the police—a charge which Ramazan Jafarov, deputy premier for security in Dagestan, denies. According to Jafarov, the police forces enforce a strict federal enforcement policy against abusive policemen and officials and do not secretly detain suspects. Human rights advocates, however, reject Jafarov’s claims, pointing to a history of abuses by corrupt officials that have plagued the region. In addition, advocates allege that evidence implicating government security forces has been left at the recent abductions.

While it is unclear whether Russia’s crackdown on the Caucasus will ultimately mitigate the threat of terrorism at the Winter Games, Russian security forces’ legal obligation to respect the right to life under the Convention is unequivocal. Whether the recent abductions are part of this campaign or the work of corrupt local officials, the efficacy of the Russian government’s enforcement policies will be tested, consequently affecting the government’s credibility in the region. Regardless of who is responsible for the disappearances, without proper and thorough investigations by the government, the backlog of complaints against Russia before the ECtHR will grow.