The Big Taboo: Confronting Russia's Human-Rights Abuses

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Mikhail Klimentyev /Kremlin / RIA Novosti / Reuters

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov walk before a meeting in Grozny, June 14, 2010.

In any discussion of human rights with Russian officials, there usually comes a point when their jaws clench, their eyes go cold and an uncomfortable pause ensues. That's when you know you have hit a taboo. The experience was no different for Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who spent six days last week navigating the subject of rights abuses in Russia. Her visit was part of a twofold confrontation — last week also saw a resolution in the European Parliament on the rule of law in Russia — but both efforts provoked little more than bristling denials and silence from officials in Moscow.

Pillay's ability to simply discuss Russia's human-rights problems was often stymied by the maze of taboos she encountered. The treatment of heroin addicts turned out to be a non-starter, while gay rights seemed too touchy to even mention. But farthest out of bounds were issues surrounding the North Caucasus, particularly the region of Chechnya, widely seen as a black hole of rights abuses on Russia's southern border.

Two Chechen wars followed by a creeping, decade-long insurgency have made torture and extrajudicial killings commonplace across the region, while rule of law simply does not apply in many areas, rights activists say. Yet when Pillay tried to raise some of these points with Prosecutor General Yury Chaika on Monday, the conversation hit a wall. "'Nothing is going on in the North Caucasus. Everything is fine there now,'" Pillay recalls Chaika saying. "Those kinds of answers killed the dialogue," she adds. "We couldn't take it further." (A spokesman for the prosecutor general declined to comment to TIME on the closed-door talks.)

It was only on the last full day of her trip, Friday, that Pillay heard a truly candid statement from an official about the North Caucasus — and it took the form of an outburst. As she participated in a panel discussion on human rights at the Mariinsky Palace in St. Petersburg, a Chechen activist named Umar Djumaliev took the microphone and launched into an appeal so frantic, Pillay had trouble understanding it. "He was not a scheduled speaker," she recalls, in an exclusive interview with TIME. "He just spoke up, and he was so angry and upset that he could hardly get his point across."

Reached by telephone, Djumaliev, who is the chief of staff for the Chechen rights ombudsman, tells TIME he had been trying to ask Pillay to investigate war crimes committed in Chechnya between 1994 and 2000, when Russia fought two brutal wars in the republic. He was asking for help with locating the bodies of the 5,000 Chechens he says disappeared without a trace, and with identifying the bodies of some 3,000 others buried in mass graves across the region. "How can the souls of the living or the dead have peace if we don't find the bodies?," he asks.

But for all the courage it took to grab that microphone, Djumaliev knows what taboos to avoid. He is, after all, an activist employed by the Chechen government (one of the reasons he is shunned by the independent activists in Moscow) and he will not discuss abuses committed in his region since 2000. That was when Vladimir Putin first became Russia's president and installed the Kadyrov family to control Chechnya by any means. Asked about Ramzan Kadyrov, the bull-necked leader of the region who denies all the allegations of torture and repression that activists level at his regime, Djumaliev gives a nervous laugh before reciting: "He is the greatest human-rights activist we have."

Even among Russia's most senior officials, it is common to hear these kinds of sycophantic and seemingly deluded remarks. The mountains of the North Caucasus are now officially touted as the next tourist hotspot — like a less expensive version of the Alps — even as gunmen ambush civilians and police on an almost weekly basis. Last December, Putin, who is now prime minister, even deadpanned that Russia has "some of the most humane courts in the world," knowing full well that their conviction rate hovers around 99%.

Putin did not take the time to meet with Pillay last week, leaving the job to his junior partner in the country's ruling duo, President Dmitri Medvedev, who saw her for twenty minutes out of the four-and-a-half hours Pillay had blocked off for a possible meeting on Tuesday. "So I'm afraid there wasn't much discussion," she tells TIME.

An attempt to force the issue was made last week in the European parliament. On Feb. 17, one week before Putin travelled to Brussels for a series of talks with E.U. officials, the chamber passed a resolution condemning his government for a spate of rights abuses, including unfair trials, harassment of the opposition, and inaction in the cases of several murdered journalists. An earlier draft had gone so far as to suggest travel bans and sanctions against Putin and his top lieutenants.

The proposed sanctions were later scrapped, and human rights were not publicly raised during the Brussels summit on Thursday. But at a press conference with E.U. President Manuel Barroso that day, Putin hinted at his annoyance over western meddling in parts of the world that may not share western values. "One must give people a chance to decide their own fate and their own future," Putin said when asked to comment on the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. "You cannot just superimpose onto other regions of the world what is comfortable and familiar."

Pillay expected that kind of response. Given Russia's pervasive culture of denial, finger-wagging over human rights will only make its officials clam up or lash out. "So I did not sit there pontificating top-down," she says of her talks with officials last week. But her more motherly approach — asking questions about the Russian mentality and invoking the universal declaration of human rights — didn't seem to get her any further. "I wouldn't say that I got answers that were really forthcoming, or loads of promises that we're going to change this and that... But it is a long-term process," she says.

Perhaps her worst disappointment came on Thursday, when she met with students at the Moscow State University of International Relations. She saw none of the idealism she had encountered even in places like the Gaza Strip and apartheid South Africa, where she grew up. Instead, the student's mostly seemed to parrot the Kremlin line: one of them wondered whether homosexual rights were all that necessary, while another asked why the International Criminal Court had "interfered" in Sudan by indicting its president for crimes against humanity.

"It was a huge surprise to me, a shock," says Pillay. "The young people have been so dulled by the propaganda here." And perhaps it's little wonder. Most of them were in grade school when Putin came to power, the perfect age to learn what can and cannot be discussed.