Cablegate: Public Chamber Discusses Potential War Crimes in South

DE RUEHMO #2489/01 2331537
R 201537Z AUG 08



E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Public Chamber Discusses Potential War Crimes in South

MOSCOW 00002489 001.2 OF 002


1. (SBU) Russia's public chamber -- a largely Kremlin-appointed
consultative body of civil society organizations -- formed two
committees to address questions about the conflict in South Ossetia,
both of which met on August 20 to discuss their two-day exploratory
trip to Vladikavkaz and Tskhinvali on August 14 and 15. While many
of the commentators hewed to the official line about "genocide" and
condemned Western reactions and coverage of events, some of the more
thoughtful members raised questions about press freedom (seen has
hindering Moscow's ability to get its side of the story out) and the
dangers of over-dramatizing the events. The session marked perhaps
the first public discourse, not just on the conflict, but on the
Russian government's policy and approach. End Summary.

A Familiar Litany

2. (SBU) The meeting kicked off with a video compiled by the
committee members who traveled to South Ossetia. Accompanied by
suitably somber music, the video showed footage of refugee camps in
North Ossetia (predominantly female and children) and of wounded
victims (primarily young males). Committee Chair Olga Kostina,
founder of the victims' right organization "Resistance," gave
commentary during the film and then opened the session with a
general overview of the trip to Tskhinvali, saying that things had
been grim when they arrived on 14 August, but trucks with relief
materials arrived on the 15th. She noted that the materials from
the investigative commission would be posted as early as August 25
on the Public Chamber web site.

3. (SBU) Aleksandr Brod, the head of Moscow Bureau for Human Rights
gave the main report on alleged war crimes in South Ossetia, saying
that the committee had collected a hundred interviews with witnesses
that described Georgian forces as using military force against
civilian targets. He reported that the committee had handed their
findings, including photographs and video materials, to the Russian
Prosecutor's office. He also made reference to possible Russian war
crimes against Georgian citizens, but did not make any elaborations.
Brod also alleged that Georgian forces had kidnapped dozens of
South Ossetians, who had not returned to their families. He further
promised that the Public Chamber committee planned to publish a book
about their findings.

4. (SBU) Other speakers at the table - including the head of the
"Politics" fund Vyacheslav Nikonov - blasted Western media for a
"disinformation" campaign, which he alleged sought to hide Georgian
war crimes and to whitewash Russian criticism of President
Saakashvilli's actions. He claimed that had Russian soldiers not
gotten involved in the crisis, then the "genocide" of South
Ossetians would never have come to light. He dismissed statements
by Human Rights Watch Tanya Lokshina that reported that the
Tskhinvali hospital had reports of no more than 40-some deaths, and
reasserted that a thousand, maybe more had perished.

Other Voices Heard as Well

5. (SBU) Other members of the committee, however, took a more
objective approach and raised questions about the Kremlin's conduct
of the war. Maksim Shevchenko, a journalist on Russia's Channel One
government television, warned against overdramatizing the situation,
noting that he had witnessed genocide in the Balkans in the 1980s
and that the situation in South Ossetia did not reach those
proportions. Instead, he posited a more "measured" argument that
Georgian forces, by firing on innocent civilians without cause, had
committed war crimes and could thus be held liable. He further
underscored, however, that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were not a
part of the Russian Federation and thus not liable to Moscow's legal
mechanisms. Lastly, he noted the risks of referring to the conflict
in South Ossetia in terms of inter-nationality conflict,
particularly given Russia's past transgressions against North
Caucasus nationalities. Finally, in commenting about the perception
that Russia appeared to have lost the "information war," Shevchenko
argued for broader press freedom and greater access to information
would have helped Moscow to make its case -- a comment that drew
scattered applause from the assembled journalists.

6. (SBU) Bishop of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians,
Sergey Ryakhovskiy, similarly criticized Moscow's policies as
counter-productive. He lamented that no international aid
organizations, including Protestant church organizations in the
U.S., had been invited to play a role in providing aid. Instead,
all support efforts flowed through the government's Emergency
Ministry, without any recourse for independent action. He noted
that his co-religionists in the U.S. and other countries had no

MOSCOW 00002489 002.2 OF 002

reason to believe Russian claims about genocide, without being
allowed to make their own observations about the conditions there.

7. (SBU) Alla Gerber, the President of the Russian Holocaust Fund,
complained about the use of the term "genocide," noting that it took
international recognition and clear evidence of a desire for
eradication - like that which befell Europe's Jewish population
under Hitler. (Indeed, perhaps because of her position on genocide,
Gerber was not informed of the departure time for the plane to
Vladikavkaz and South Ossetia and thus was not a member of the
delegation to the region.) Gerber also raised concern about the use
of conscript troops in Russia's military force in Georgia, since
conscripts by Russian law are not to be employed in peacetime to
combat operations.


8. (SBU) Despite disagreements on the terminology for what happened
in South Ossetia and debate about the Russian government's failure
to get its message across, there was general agreement that war
crimes of some sort had taken place in Tskhinvali and warranted
investigation, even from the more pro-Western members of the Public
Chamber committee. As their findings become public knowledge, with
an expected web site showing testimony and material evidence, we can
expect more public retrospection on the events and, most likely, a
strong push by the Public Chamber and the Russian government to
appeal to international organizations as a means to draw world
attention to the alleged war crimes.

© Scoop Media

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