Commentary Magazine


The Consequences of Ignoring Human Rights Violations

After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

Russian authorities contacted the US government with concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev not once but “multiple’’ times, including an alert it sent after he was first investigated by FBI agents in Boston, raising new questions about whether the FBI should have paid more attention to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, US senators briefed on the inves­tigation said Tuesday.

The FBI has previously said it interviewed Tsarnaev in early 2011 after it was initially contacted by the ­Russians. In their review, completed in summer 2011, the bureau found no ­evidence that Tsarnaev was a threat. “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from” Russia, the agency said last week.

Following a closed briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he believed that Russia alerted the United States about Tsarnaev in “multiple contacts,” including at least once since October 2011.

It seems quite possible the FBI too easily dismissed clues, but there’s really more to this story, in defense of the FBI. Eli Lake touches on it at the Daily Beast, in which he discusses the fact that the corruption of the Russian security services, the FSB, is so thorough, and Vladimir Putin’s tactics used to pacify the Caucasus so brutal and heavy-handed, it’s difficult to know when to trust the FSB and when to assume the FSB is trying to get others to do its dirty work.

The truth is, however, it’s about more than just the Chechen conflict. And a perfect example of this is taking place today, as Russian opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s trial begins. Navalny has brilliantly exposed official corruption in Russia, and less brilliantly allied himself with anyone opposed to Putin, including xenophobic nationalists. But he is a credible leader of the protest class and represents a threat to Putin in the political sphere. (He is charged with embezzlement, but a local investigation had already cleared him.)

Navalny’s case raises a question: his trial is infinitely more significant to Russia’s near-term political future (and to Putin’s) than the trial of the female punk group jailed for hooliganism for stomping around a Moscow cathedral. The girls earned benefit concerts as far away from Russia as New York City, and became a cause célèbre among their fellow musicians (though calling them “musicians” or “artists” is being a touch too kind to a group of masked vandals). Why doesn’t Navalny, who actually matters, get nearly the same attention?

Getting even less attention than Navalny will be the “Bolotnoye affair,” in which a large group of anti-Putin demonstrators will go to court in what opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov calls analogous to Stalinist show trials. Though it doesn’t speak well of the West to express its love of liberty only when it doesn’t really matter, there is more at stake to all this, and the Boston Marathon bombing should call our attention to it. Put simply: we should care about Russian political repression and human rights violations because they erode our own ability to protect ourselves. Human rights policy has national security implications. The Putin regime may tell us that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dangerous potential criminal–but they’ll say the same about Navalny the blogger or a punk rock protest group.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Robert Amsterdam, who was for a time one of the attorneys representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who challenged Putin politically and who now sits in a jail cell because of it with his assets claimed by the government. The Khodorkovsky case, and the Putin government that behaves like a criminal syndicate, represents a “tremendous danger for those people who want to deal with Russia, and it’s a tremendous danger for the United States, which has set up a policy of opportunism with Russia, that they call the reset,” Amsterdam had told me.

Though when we spoke he was no longer representing Khodorkovsky, Amsterdam clearly isn’t impartial in the matter. But it’s difficult to say he was wrong on the merits. Putin’s corruption, criminality, and dishonesty are not simply an internal matter. They have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril.

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