Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 40

How many Chechens have disappeared in “zachistki” security sweeps by pro-Moscow or pro-Kadyrov gunmen? Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, Vladimir Putin’s special representative for human rights in Chechnya, said last week that independent human rights groups have exaggerated the number–that many of those said to have disappeared have in fact simply gone underground to join the rebel guerrillas. Sultygov even advised the Chechen procuracy, according to a report by Zoya Svetova in the November 3 issue of Russky kurier, not to spoil its statistics by accepting complaints from citizens about the kidnapping of their relatives.

Joining the attack on the human rights activists was Aleksandr Nikitin of the procuracy itself. According to an October 28 report by the Itar-Tass news agency, he challenged the figures of the Moscow-based Memorial. Nikitin claimed that the official list of Chechens known to have “disappeared” since 1994 (the year when the first war began) contains only 2,000 names. He also said that a list of specific names that the procuracy had recently received from Memorial turned out after investigation to include people whose relatives said that they had not in fact disappeared: “Many of them were simply living in their own homes and had never been kidnapped.”

On October 31 Memorial issued a response, pointing out that in January of 2003 the Kadyrov administration itself announced that it had a list of 2,800 “disappeared.” Further disappearances are known to have taken place since then, as Kadyrov’s Interior Ministry recognized several months ago when it announced that about sixty people a month had suffered that fate in the first four months of 2003. Last month, observed Memorial, Kadyrov’s aide Movsar Khamidov stated that about 300 people had disappeared since the beginning of the year.

In short, noted the Memorial statement, “even on the basis of the official data…one can conclude that more than 3,000 people have disappeared in the Chechen Republic.” Moreover, Memorial suggested that even those official figures are “clearly too low.” According to the human rights organization’s own research, “just during the five months since the [March] referendum, 250 civilians have disappeared in Chechnya….If one takes into account the obvious incompleteness of our monitoring, which covers only about 25 to 30 percent of the republic’s territory, the total number of those who have disappeared during this period must be higher. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the number announced by Khamidov for 2003 might include all the reports actually received by Chechnya’s procuracy and commission for the disappeared–since ‘security measures’ adopted in recent months have made it significantly more difficult for citizens to gain access to the government buildings which house those agencies.” (Memorial refrained from suggesting that such difficulties might be connected with Sultygov’s advice about deliberately ignoring citizens’ complaints.)

As for the list of specific names disputed by the procuracy, Memorial insisted that the last time it had presented such a list to that agency was in March of 2002, and that “we have not received one denial from the procuracy about the accuracy of any of those names or facts.” During the entire period since the beginning of the second war in the autumn of 1999, according to Memorial, the organization has been made aware of only two cases in which the procuracy was able to show that a specific kidnapping reported by Memorial had not in fact taken place. “It is no accident,” said the Memorial statement, “that the deputy head of the procuracy was unable to present even one example in support of his words about the unreliability of our data, except for the case of Dik Altemirov,” which took place in 2001. This case involved a Chechen activist who was in fact kidnapped, but later released after Memorial brought his case to international attention.