In Russia, some seek justice in European Court of Human Rights

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A young Chechen man is stopped at a Russian checkpoint on a lonely mountain road in 2003. After being taken away to a military base, he is never seen again.

That same year, Russia’s richest man is arrested at gunpoint on an airstrip in Siberia. Today, he languishes in a gulag-style prison camp.

The connection between the two detentions, one involving an unknown 25-year-old named Said-Emin Sambiyev and the other a famous tycoon named Mikhail Khodorkovsky, may not be apparent. But in both cases, lawyers turned to the European Court of Human Rights when attempts to get justice in Russia failed.

And in both cases, they won.

Today’s Russia is a country where justice is elusive and, critics say, the law can be applied as a form of punishment against those who challenge the authorities, the case of Khodorkovsky, a critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, being a vivid symbol.

For many, applying to the European court has become a vital form of redress. The human rights court, based in Strasbourg, France, is the only international judicial body whose decisions are binding for Russia, which joined the Council of Europe and signed the European Convention on Humans Rights in the late 1990s.

The court has awarded millions of dollars in compensation, a significant portion of it to victims and survivors of abuses in Russia’s North Caucasus region over the last decade, including the republic of Chechnya, where Russian forces waged a war against separatists more than a decade ago.

In a recent high-profile case, the court ruled in December that Russia had violated the human rights convention in its handling of a 2002 hostage crisis at a Moscow theater that left 130 hostages and 50 Chechen attackers dead, most of them from the gas used by security forces. The court ordered the Russian government to pay about $1.7 million in compensation to the 64 people who filed the case.

Russian cases amount to about 20% of those tackled in Strasbourg, a fact that increasingly irritates Russian authorities. The chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, Valery D. Zorkin, and lawmaker Alexander Torshin have publicly expressed their desire to change Russian law so that the country might selectively ignore the European court’s decisions.

Perhaps most vexing to the authorities is a Dutch nongovernmental organization called the Russian Justice Initiative, a force behind the bulk of the cases before the Strasbourg court dealing with human rights violations in Chechnya and neighboring southern republics of Russia.

Led by a New York native with Russian family roots and a passionate desire to see law become a civilizing force in the North Caucasus, the group has assisted in 109 cases won by Russian citizens against Moscow.

It’s hard to overestimate the contribution of the Russian Justice Initiative in helping applicants get access to real justice, said Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of the Memorial human rights society, which also won several dozen similar cases in Strasbourg.

“For the Kremlin, this organization is of course a nuisance, as Putin doesn’t want anyone to poke in the crimes committed in Chechnya over the last 12 years,” Cherkasov said. “Putin always talks about the victory in Chechnya and we see no reflection on his part as to the price paid for this victory and whether it was a victory at all.”

The Russian Justice Initiative may have paid a price for its persistence: A year ago, its work hit a bureaucratic roadblock when the organization was struck off the Russian Justice Ministry registry for nongovernmental organizations on a technicality; numerous attempts to re-register have been rejected.

With more than 100 cases pending, the organization tries to represent its clients as it is preparing for a legal battle with government officials on their home turf: a Russian court.

“We think that indeed they are trying to take advantage of small technical mistakes on our part to stop us from working here,” Vanessa Kogan, executive director of the group, said in an interview in a small, drab office in downtown Moscow.

The moves against the group come against the backdrop of Putin’s recent successful presidential campaign, with its Cold War overtones rich in accusations of foreign NGOs’ role, and Western influence in general, in the organization of recent mass anti-Putin protests.

The authorities “have been hostile to NGOs, basically accusing them of being spies sponsored by foreign governments to destabilize Russia,” said Kogan, a Columbia University graduate with a degree in law from Britain’s Cambridge University. “That is the kind of perception being approved at the highest level of the Russian society.”

Still, the group has succeeded wildly in the Strasbourg court on behalf of Russian citizens.

Until 2010, in most disappearance cases presented to the European court by the Russian Justice Initiative, applicants were awarded a set sum of about $45,500 as moral compensation for violations suffered, an amount that was raised in 2010 to about $78,000.

The organization argued that in most cases the missing, presumed dead, were family breadwinners and that the award was the only remedy for disappearances in Chechnya.

In the case of the young Chechen man who disappeared, after years of bouncing the case from one agency to another, the government failed to establish that Sambiyev had ever been arrested, despite at least two witnesses’ accounts to the contrary. After the case ended up in the European Court of Human Rights last year, the Russian government was ordered to pay Sambiyev’s family $87,000 in compensation, including legal costs.

In the Khodorkovsky case, brought by his own lawyers, the European court on May 31 awarded the former chief of the Yukos oil company about $32,000 in damages when it found that his rights were violated during his October 2003 arrest and his pretrial detention.

Khodorkovsky, still imprisoned on charges of financial crimes, has said he will donate the money to charity.