During a May 18 meeting with members of Chechen human rights groups in Gudermes, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov denied the existence of secret prisons in Chechnya and asked the meeting’s participants to invite Russian and international human rights organizations to the republic. “I would like these people to examine any area and corner of Chechnya inch by inch in order to eliminate once and for all the issue of the so-called place where Kadyrov is allegedly keeping detainees,” he said (Caucasus Times, May 19). Kadyrov also declared he would do everything within his and the Chechen parliament’s power to pass federal legislation establishing a region commission to search for missing people.
Human rights groups remain skeptical. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights recently published a report entitled “Unofficial Places of Detention in the Chechen Republic,” claiming that Kadyrov’s security forces, known as the kadyrovtsy, maintain secret prisons throughout Chechnya. The report, which was submitted to Council of Europe Legal Affairs Committee Rapporteur Dick Marty, also details numerous cases of illegal detention and torture in those alleged secret prisons (Chechnya Weekly, May 18).
On May 18, the rebel Chechenpress website posted an article by Nadezhda Banchik on welcoming the Helsinki Federation report and providing its own account of secret prisons in Chechnya. According to Banchik, the “filtration camps” used by Russian authorities during the first Chechen war were put on an “industrial footing” after the start of the second Chechen war in 1999. The author argued that in addition to being incarcerated in filtration camps and the kadyrovtsy’s private jails, Chechens are also being sent “to places which are familiar from the ‘Gulag Archipelago'”—Arkhangelsk Region, Komi, Perm Region and Magadan”—despite the fact that Russian criminal law mandates that a prisoner be held in the region where he was charged.
Banchik cited the case of two Chechens, whom she identified as Magomed and Akhmed and described as being educated, white-collar professionals who were forced to confess involvement in “illegal armed formations” under “incredible torture” and subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison in harsh regime camps in Russia’s Far North and Siberia. According to Magomed, who was initially imprisoned in the region of Perm, winter temperatures dropped to minus 56 degrees Celsius and that the Chechens jailed there were housed together in special cells regardless of whether or not they had tuberculosis. She also quoted Magomed as claiming that Chechens held there were compelled to sign forced confessions and that those who refused were injected with the HIV virus.
Banchik’s report suggests that these abuses were not limited to one particular facility. According to Magomed, Chechens in other regions are “always kicked and beaten with whatever was around” during searches and “packed away in the darkest underground cells until they could get no more in.” He claimed that in a prison in the southern Russian city of Pyatigorsk, he and other Chechens were kept in an underground cell in which the window was covered “so that not even a ray of light could get in” and were given nothing to eat for 24 days, after which “they threw us some rotten fish.” According to Banchik’s account, Magomed was released from prison after two years despite his sentence. She did not indicate how this happened. Banchik alleged that “hundreds, if not thousands, of Chechens are languishing in secret prisons all over Russia.”
Meanwhile, Tanya Lokshina, chair of the Demos Center for Information and Human Rights Research in Moscow, gave an interview to the Caucasus Times just a week after she returned from a trip to Chechnya. She described the situation there as one of “complete lawlessness” (Caucasus Times, May 19). Lokshina reiterated what she has said in previous interviews: namely, that reconstruction is well underway in Grozny and other parts of Chechnya (Chechnya Weekly, May 4), financed by “donations” made mostly by businessmen and the better paid civil servants. Loikshina also noted that Ramzan Kadyrov is gaining popularity for imposing order. He is particularly popular among young people for his “tough” image, she said.
“It is extremely important to create the image of a successful leader against the background of anarchy into which Chechnya plunged many years ago,” Lokshina told the Caucasus Times. “And nobody cares whether this government is righteous or not. We have had worse. By all appearances, very experienced and efficient spin doctors are employed on Kadyrov’s team and they give him clear instructions on what to say and when and how. And this often works.” Although Kadyrov began his political career as something of a joke due to his uneducated speech and crude manners, Lokshina said he is “no longer a dilettante in the sphere of political populism; he is a professional.” She cited a meeting Kadyrov had with students about a month ago in which he came into the hall, surveyed the audience and gave $1,000 to every girl wearing a headscarf.
At the same time, Lokshina said, criticism of Kadyrov is “totally prohibited” and no one dares say anything about the criminal activities of the kadyrovtsy. She quoted a Chechen source as saying that “if Kadyrov’s men detain someone, there are only two people in Russia who can influence the situation—Kadyrov himself and Vladimir Putin. This means that if the Russian president asks Kadyrov to release a detainee, Kadyrov will listen to his request.”
The Kadyrov regime, she said, is imposing “traditional values” by banning the sale of alcohol, cracking down on drug addiction and, apparently, by imposing rough Islamic-style justice for those accused of behaving immorally. Lokshina said she investigated the case of a young married Chechen woman who allegedly committed adultery with a Russian serviceman. “Kadyrov’s men seized her, stripped her naked, shaved her hair and eyebrows, drew a cross on her forehead, took her picture with a mobile phone and sent this picture to everyone in the city where the incident happened,” she said. “This story is not a unique one. Such things are quite frequent.”