Abuse of Chechens and Ingush in Russian Prisons Creates Legions of Enemies

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 7

Sixteen years have passed since the start of the second Russian-Chechen war, but Chechen and Ingush detainees from various parts of the Russian Federation continue to cry out for help. In accordance with Russian law, the convicts are often sent to the farthest corners of the country to serve their sentences, most often to Siberia and the Russian Far East. This results in the convicts’ complete isolation from their families, who cannot afford to visit them even once a year. The Russian prison system is founded on the principles of the Soviet regime, which strived to break an individual’s will by breaking his spirit so that he could never revive after prison.

In January, two leading Russian human rights organizations, Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie and Memorial, presented a report about the fate of Chechens in Russia (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 22). The report detailed the factors that are driving Chechens out of the country. In particular, it focused on the ethnic profiling of Chechen and Ingush convicts in Russian prisons. The report was prepared with the assistance of Secours Catholique–Caritas France and the European Commission (Refugee.ru, March 31).

Chechens and Ingush have, themselves, repeatedly tried to attract attention to the problem of violence in the Russian penitentiary system. However, the impact of the report by the rights groups, which was supported by European institutions, is far greater than actions by individuals. The report indicates that residents of Chechnya and Ingushetia bear the primary weight of massive persecution in the Russian penitentiary system and that the reasons for this are specific to these ethnic groups. First of all, many who fought in the two Russian-Chechen wars landed in prison and have been treated badly ever since. Second, convicts of Chechen and Ingush origin suffered as a result of the general misunderstanding of the needs of Muslims in Russian prisons and discrimination against them on religious and ethnic grounds (Kavkazky Uzel, March 31). It should also be noted that many officers of Russia’s federal penitentiary system took part in the Russian-Chechen wars, and are consequently infected with xenophobia and a highly negative attitude toward Chechens and Ingush, whom they still consider to be their enemies (Newizv.ru, March 31).

According to the leader of the Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie committee, Svetlana Gannushkina, “quite a few Chechens, including those who asked for our help, ended up behind bars just because of their ethnic background, especially, during the campaign of persecution of Chechens in 1999–2000” (Kavpolit.ru, March 31). During three years of research, the rights activists found over 700 claims of rights violations against Chechens in Russian prisons, but the actual number of cases may be in the thousands or possibly even the tens of thousands (Islamru.com, September 19, 2008). The abuses could not have taken place if the prison systems did not receive instructions from Moscow. Chechens and Ingush are beaten up on any pretext; they are forced, under the threat of rape, to admit to crimes they did not commit; people who are far from politics are forced to admit to belonging to separatist forces. Chechens experience frequent harassment and torture (Zakon.com, November 17, 2009). The mortality among Chechens and Ingush in Russian prisons is far higher than among other ethnic groups.

At the same time, Russian state propaganda programming frequently focuses its attention on on convicts who were accused of terrorism (YouTube, February 24, 2014), thereby creating the image of prison inmates who rightly being punished for killing Russians. During the first Russian-Chechen war, so-called filtration camps were set up, supposedly for identifying the members of the Chechen resistance. During the second Russian-Chechen war, however, this system was literally taken to the limits of cruelty, with the introduction of special executions of Chechens detained in the the war zone (Cenzoriv.net, October 28, 2003).

Chechen websites and social networks are full of lists of Chechen inmates who have managed to signal to the outside world that they are being mistreated in various prisons. Chechen inmates sometimes manage to sign and secretly send out collective pleas for help (Ipvnews.org, November 8, 2010). At the same time Chechen and Ingush inmates do not trust the system, so when the rights activists come across cases of torture and beatings, they cannot obtain written statements from the victims because they have no chances of surviving if they sign any documents (Galgayche.org, March 31).

It is no surprise, therefore, that almost all inmates from Chechnya and Ingushetia turn to radical Islam while incarcerated. After they leave prison, these people seek revenge against the system that abused them for no reason. Often these Chechens are prepared to go to Syria or Ukraine to fight against Russia, or to harm Russian interests in the North Caucasus. Russian prisons today are preparing enemies of the country in ever larger numbers. Every Chechen unjustly convicted or tortured and killed in prison has multiple relatives, friends and acquaintances who realize they could also become victims. In the 16 years since the start of the second Russian-Chechen war, tens of thousands of Chechens and Ingush have passed through the Russian prison system, and they will demand answers from Russia for the humiliation and abuse inflicted on them.