Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 44

Human Rights Watch on November 13 published a briefing paper on torture in Chechnya that it had prepared for the 37th session of the United Nations Committee against Torture. The paper covered torture by personnel of the Second Operational Investigative Bureau (ORB-2), torture by units under the effective command of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, torture in secret detention and continuing “disappearances.” According to Human Rights Watch, torture “in both official and secret detention facilities is widespread and systematic in Chechnya.”

One of the cases detailed in the briefing paper involved the illegal arrest and torture of two brothers, Sulim S. and Salambek S., in mid-March 2006. Sulim S., who was incarcerated in what he later found out was the ORB-2’s premises, described being suffocated by a gas mask through which the airflow was cut, subjected to electric shocks, severely beaten, threatened with rape and told his brother would be “ripped apart.” He said that when he was unable to come up with a crime to confess to, he was given a choice of three crimes to confess to – bombing of a bus, killing of two policemen or killing of one woman – but that he refused to do so. His brother was detained and taken to the ORB-2’s premises about a week later, where he was subjected to similar abuse. “Sulim said that upon transfer to the remand facility in Grozny, he was examined by a doctor who documented his injuries, including broken ribs, bruises on his legs and inner thighs, swollen hands and tongue, and burned ears,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Most of the charges against the two brothers were dropped, and both stood trial for ‘membership in illegal armed formations.’ In August 2006, a court released both men under the applicable statute of limitations. Although the brothers told the judge that they had been tortured in detention and their medical reports were entered into the case record, the court took no action to investigate the torture allegations” (Chechnya Weekly, August 10, April 20).

Human Rights Watch also detailed several cases of alleged detention and torture by forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov. Magomed M., a 24-year-old resident of a village in central-eastern Chechnya, told the group he was among five young males detained by kadyrovtsy in early June 2006 and taken to one of Kadyrov’s bases on the outskirts of the village of Tsentoroi. “There were three or four personnel there – the same ones who brought us to the base,” Magomed M. said. “They kept asking about a rebel fighter from our area – they said we should know him since we are the same age. I knew nothing about the man, but they wouldn’t believe me. They kept kicking me and beating me with sticks; it lasted for five or six hours.” He was released after several days and warned that if he talked about his detention he would be taken into custody again and “disappear.” According to Human Rights Watch, after his release, Magomed M. spent more than three weeks in a hospital, where he said doctors documented his injuries, including multiple hematomas on his body, kidney damage and a concussion.

Another case documented by Human Rights Watch involved Khamid Kh., who was detained in April by kadyrovtsy who accused him of providing food and weapons to rebels. He was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks during interrogation, and while he was released the next day, he spent the following two weeks in a hospital with serious heart problems that he believed resulted from the electric shock torture. “Although Khamid Kh. said he remembered and would have recognized his torturers, he had no intention to seek justice as he was warned that only ‘keeping his mouth shut’ would guarantee his safety,” Human Rights Watch wrote.

The report further noted: “Continued enforced disappearances in Chechnya are of interest to the committee [United Nations Committee against Torture] because they place civilians outside the protection of the law, making them particularly vulnerable to torture. In a number of cases documented by Human Rights Watch during its recent missions and earlier, relatives of the ‘disappeared’ later found the bodies of their loved ones in unmarked graves or other locations. In most cases, the bodies bore marks of torture. Some of those detained by Kadyrov’s forces later ‘disappear’ without a trace. Based on extensive research, Human Rights Watch concluded in 2005 that enforced disappearances in Chechnya are so widespread and systematic that they constitute crimes against humanity.”

According to Human Rights Watch, such crimes are being carried out with virtual impunity. “One of the main factors contributing to the widespread pattern of illegal detention and torture in Chechnya is the total lack of accountability for perpetrators,” the briefing paper stated. “The perpetrators themselves – be they ORB-2 personnel or Kadyrov’s forces – try to ensure that their abuses do not come to light by threatening their victims into silence. Indeed, few victims or witnesses dare to report instances of torture to the authorities, such as the prosecutor’s office, and in many cases refuse to speak to human rights organizations…In many cases, Human Rights Watch found that the perpetrators were so confident that there would be no consequences for their abuses that they did not wear masks or otherwise attempt to conceal their identity. In fact, a number of witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they knew their tormentors by name, or at least would be able to identify them. These witnesses, however, did not dare to report this information to prosecutorial authorities, and were, in some cases, considering personal revenge against the perpetrators.”

The briefing paper added: “The climate of impunity is worsened by the persistent efforts by Chechen and Russian authorities to close Chechnya to outside scrutiny. Most unlawful places of detention run by Kadyrov’s forces are off limits to journalists or international experts visiting the region. Moreover, in several instances when outside observers were allowed to visit these facilities, such as the Tsentoroi bases, the authorities removed the detainees from the premises prior to the visit. A number of witnesses told Human Rights Watch about being moved to another base or simply driven away and kept in cars for several hours when a ‘delegation’ was expected to visit the base where they were being detained.”

On November 13, the day that Human Rights Watch released its report on torture in Chechnya, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and Ambassador Plenipotentiary in Moscow Ziad Sabsabi told Interfax: “This information is untrue. If torture really took place, we would speak about this problem, and so would prisoners’ relatives.” He accused Human Rights Watch of assessing “the condition of prisoners” while “being far away from Chechnya.”

Kavkazky Uzel on November 14 quoted Chechnya’s chief prosecutor, Valery Kuznetsov, as admitting to Kommersant that “cases occur in which representatives of power structures use unlawful methods during questioning” and that his office has launched ten criminal cases involving torture. He insisted, however, that it is “unfair to assert that torture is purely a Chechen phenomenon,” adding, “You can find cases of police beating detainees in any region of Russia. And even in the West you can find just as many cases of torture.”

Kavkazky Uzel also quoted the deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, Aleksandr Petrov, as saying that Chechnya’s main problem remains, as before, unnatural death. “People perish through the inadvertence of the state, and one can say that people are murdered by the arms of the state,” he said. “Progress is not evident for this year. Every day I receive information from independent sources that soldiers or civilians are perishing. People in Chechnya with whom I have occasionally spoken to aren’t thinking about social problems or politics. They have one thought – how to survive.”