Chechen President Alu Alkhanov said on September 26 that the number of kidnappings in Chechnya has dropped significantly. “Unfortunately, cases of kidnapping continue to take place,” Interfax quoted him as saying during a press conference in Grozny. “But in speaking about this, it is necessary to remember the years 2000-2003, when 500-700 people were kidnapped yearly.” According to Alkhanov, 23 criminal cases of kidnapping have been opened since the start of this year. Today, he said, only “a handful” of kidnappings are taking place, although he said the goal is “to completely eliminate the very phenomenon of kidnapping in the Chechen Republic.”
Figures put forward by Russian human rights activists concerning kidnappings confirm that there have been fewer kidnappings this year than in previous years, but their numbers are higher than those given by Alkhanov. MosNews on September 27 quoted Memorial as saying that more than 100 civilians were abducted in Chechnya during the first half of 2006, and that of those abducted, 38 were counted missing. According to the human rights group, the rest were either killed, confirmed as having been released, or thought to have been released. In addition, Memorial said that these numbers relate only to the small portion of Chechnya to which it has access.
Newsru.com on September 16 quoted Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the human rights group Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie (Civil Assistance) and a member of Memorial’s board, as saying that 125 people disappeared in Chechnya during the first of half of this year, with 45 disappearing without any trace. Another 47 people were murdered, she said. According to Gannushkina, 192 murders and 316 kidnappings were registered in Chechnya in 2005, and 127 of those abducted disappeared without a trace. In 2004, 310 Chechnya residents were murdered and 448 kidnapped, with 203 disappearing without a trace. “We observed approximately 30 percent fewer abductions of people in 2005 in comparison with 2004,” Newsru.com quoted Gannushkina as saying. “But we cannot interpret those figures as a big improvement in the situation. Inquiries confirm that 80 percent of the inhabitants are simply afraid to complain to the law-enforcement bodies and human rights organizations and try to resolve the problem on their own.”
Newsru.com on September 16 also quoted Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alekseyeva on the issue of kidnappings. The veteran human rights campaigner, who recently visited Chechnya, said that while there have been fewer terrorist attacks in Chechnya lately, kidnapping remains “the main problem” in the republic. “I have the impression that the armed resistance has been quelled,” she said. “Unfortunately, disappearances of people are continuing. I am again surrounded by photographs of their children and husbands who have been abducted. The law-enforcement system is not fighting the problem of kidnapping.”
The continuing problem of kidnapping in Chechnya was underscored in an article posted by Prague Watchdog on September 27. According to the website, on September 22, members of Chechen law-enforcement agencies abducted from a house in the 8th precinct of Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district a young man whose brother left in secret to join the rebels several months ago. “About three months ago, when many of the republic’s residents, mainly young men, set off en masse to worship at the grave of the mother of Kunta-Hadji in Vedensky district (Kunta-Hadji Kishiyev, the founder of one of the Sufi movements in nineteenth century Chechnya, is one of Chechnya’s most revered ustazy, i.e., saints), three lads from our area also left there,” the website quoted Kheda, a 47-year-old resident of the 8th precinct, as saying. “But they didn’t return. Then there was a rumor that they had gone to join the guerrillas. The problems started after that.”
Kheda said that the father of one of the youths, Alkhazur Seriev, began to get regular visits “from the FSB, the police or whoever they were,” and that these siloviki warned him to get his son to return, charged that the precinct was a “nest of Wahhabis,” and then, on September 22, raided the Serievs’ house. The raiders, who were in camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic weapons, broke into the house and took away Alkhazur Seriev’s eldest son, Ilyas.
“We don’t understand: what does Ilyas have to do with it?” Prague Watchdog quoted Kheda as asking. “His younger brother didn’t tell him about his plans, any more than he told his father. Who gave this kind of authority to the special services, the police and soldiers, to take the relatives of guerrillas hostage, or those who sympathize with them? After all, even during the Stalin era, in the years of the Second World War, there was the principle of ‘the son does not answer for the father,’ and that went for other relatives too. But there’s only one word for what is going on just now, and that’s terror.”
Relatives of Ilyas Seriev lodged a complaint about his abduction with the Staropromyslovsky district police station, but officials there told Prague Watchdog that local police were not involved and knew nothing about his whereabouts or fate, but that they had promised Seriev’s father they would search for him.
As the website noted, various pro-Moscow law-enforcement bodies have at various times taken relatives of the Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev and Dokku Umarov hostage. “The former Ichkerian defense minister Magomed Khambiev (now a member of the Moscow-backed Chechen parliament), ‘voluntarily’ turned himself in to the authorities in March 2004 after law-enforcers seized and abducted about 40 of his relatives and close family,” Prague Watchdog wrote. The website also quoted the Chechen historian and political analyst Murad Nashkoev on the subject of hostage taking: “This vicious practice was introduced by the tsarist generals after Russia began its active advance into the depths of the Caucasus. In those days, it was the children of influential families who were taken hostage – they were called amanats. The tsarist administration thought this was the best way to secure the obedience of potential enemies of the regime. So I don’t see anything new in what is being done now.”
Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, for his part, has accused some human rights activists of defending the late Chechen rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev while doing nothing when his supporters were abducted. “In the village of Avtury 11 people disappeared without a trace,” Kadyrov told reporters in Gudermes on September 27, RIA Novosti reported. “These were people who were close to me. And thus far, they have not been found, either alive or dead, and not one human rights organization has reported this. I think they have a one-sided approach to the problem of protecting human rights.” Kadyrov added that “if something happened to Maskhadov, Basaev or their people, then all of the human rights activists raised a clamor.” He also said, according to RIA Novosti, that he was sure that certain organizations are “performing as conductors” for the interests of forces that are unfriendly to Russia. “Basaev [and] Maskhadov killed 240 of my people, but nobody says anything about them either, and they simply spout accusations that I kidnap people,” Kadyrov said.
Kadyrov, in RIA Novosti’s words, “emphatically rejected” the charges that he kidnaps people. “They say that I hide kidnapped people at home in my boiler-room or basement,” he said. “You can come to my house right now and look: there are ten kids aged 8 months to 15 years running in my yard. Why do I need to kidnap people, when there is a law punishing this crime?” Kadyrov also insisted that Magomed Khambiev surrendered voluntarily. “It is said that I detained his relatives to make Khambiev give up,” he said. “You can ask him yourself, he’ll tell you everything.” Kadyrov added that he never had plans to detain Khambiev’s relatives. “I drink tea with his first cousins [and] relatives; I went to a meeting with Khambiev without weapons, and we agreed that he would reach a decision after consulting with his relatives.” According to Kadyrov, three days after that meeting, Khambiev announced to him that he had decided to “return to peaceful life” and that his relatives supported his decision. Kadyrov said that one of Khambiev’s relatives, who was a member of the “illegal armed formations,” was in fact detained, but that the detention had nothing to do with the fact that he was related to Khambiev.
Kadyrov’s comments rejecting the charges that he kidnaps people may have been a reaction to an article focusing on him in the September 25 edition of Newsweek, which was posted on the magazine’s website on September 17.
The Newsweek article stated, among other things, “Putin used divisions of artillery and 1,000-kilo bunker-busters to subdue the rebels, Kadyrov had another way. He got down and dirty, fighting and winning-Chechen style. Those methods have been simple, violent and effective. At their core is the so-called Kadyrovtsy, a private irregular army of close to 10,000 former rebels who wear U.S. military fatigues and black T-shirts with a portrait of their leader Ramzan. Their violence is less indiscriminate than the Russians’—instead of emptying whole quarters of villages in search of guerrillas, for instance, Kadyrov’s men target single households—but more extreme. Tactics commonly include kidnapping family members as a way of persuading outlaws to give themselves up, according to the human rights group Memorial. Though Kadyrov swears ‘on my father’s name’ that he has ‘never tortured anybody,’ his men clearly are not squeamish in their work. Last July, Kadyrovtsy hung the severed head of one prominent guerrilla leader from a gas pipe in the village of Kurchaloi as a warning to other would-be rebels” (Chechnya Weekly, August 3).
Meanwhile, MosNews, quoting Inter Press Service (IPS), reported on September 26 that human rights activists say little progress has been made in developing free and independent media in Chechnya. “The media are severely hampered, not only by the lack of infrastructure but by a number of factors stemming from the climate of fear that reigns in the republic,” executive member of the International Federation for Human Rights Tatyana Lokshina told IPS. “The problems of the Chechen media vividly reflect problems that to an increasing degree, have marked Russian media in general, where most electronic and print media are firmly controlled by the authorities, and independent journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed.”
The independent weekly Chechenskoe Obchestvo (Chechen Society), which last year received an official warning for its reporting on the February 2004 assassination of former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar, continues to face problems. Its editor, Timur Aliev, has been called in for questioning by the police units in charge of fighting organized crime and was told by officials that they regarded his newspaper as “anti-government.” They asked him to suspend printing of the newspaper, which is now only available electronically. “In the northern Caucasus, one can see in Chechnya the most extreme level of censorship – and the biggest number of newspapers,” Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of the Kavkazky Uzel website, told IPS. “There is no such thing as freedom of press in the region, that’s why the independent newspaper, Chechen Society, and its editor Timur Aliev are playing such a great role.”
Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asian program researcher Victoria Webb told IPS that while there are media outlets in Chechen that are able to provide their own perspective on events and thus, the republic is not under a “total information blockade,” there are “multiple difficulties” for those seeking to report on events in the region. There is a danger, she said, “of being caught up in the violence” and “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” as well as “difficulties in accessing some remote areas and also difficulties in persuading ordinary people that it is worth speaking to them about their experiences or what they have witnessed.”
Stanislav Dmitrievsky and Oksana Chelysheva of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (ORChD) have received death threats. Dmitrievsky was convicted this year of engaging in “extremist activity” and given a two-year suspended sentence for publishing articles in the society’s newspaper, Pravo-Zashchita, by Chechen leaders calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The society has also been subjected to apparently intimidating checks by the tax authorities and the Ministry of Justice (Chechnya Weekly, January 26, March 23, September 22, November 10 and 17, 2005; February 9 and May 25, 2006).