Chechen law enforcement officials have admitted that Russian forces carried out illegal arrests and engaged in looting and marauding during last week’s “zachistka,” or antiguerrilla sweep, in Argun, Chechnya’s third largest city. Rostslav Timshin, Argun’s prosecutor, said Monday (December 17) that an initial inquiry had established instances “of looting and tactless behavior” during last week’s zachistka in Argun, which was carried out in response to a large-scale attack by separatist guerrillas on federal forces in the center of the city (see the Monitor, December 13-14). Sergei Babkin, head of the Argun branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), said that some of the alleged perpetrators of the abuses had been identified and would be punished if proven guilty. He added, however, that residents’ complaints often turned out to be exaggerated (Gazeta.ru, December 18).
Some of Argun’s residents have come forward with harrowing descriptions of how some Russian troops rampaged during the counterinsurgency operation there. The human rights group Memorial cited a case in which fifteen Russian soldiers reportedly broke down the door of a home on Argun’s Zhelezendorozhnaya Street, threatening a man at gunpoint while his wife, who had hidden their three small children under mattresses, begged that his life be spared, apparently successfully. Other residents on the same street were reportedly not so lucky: Eyewitnesses said that two were shot to death and a third seriously wounded. These incidents were just several among many abuses reported in Argun, and Memorial’s Oleg Orlov said that all statements by local residents detailing such incidents would be sent to the office of the republic’s prosecutor (Izvestia.ru, December 18).
But while it is a good sign that the authorities in Chechnya have begun a probe into the alleged abuses in Argun, it is not clear if the investigation will be exhaustive. Indeed, an official in the Argun military commandant’s office, who was asked about the crowds of local women in Argun seeking information from the local administration about husbands or sons who were detained during the zachistka, gave a response that in essence justified collective punishment. “Maybe this is harsh, but it is the only way to force the population to go against the rebels,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying. “Of course we cannot establish with 100 percent certainty that this Akhmed didn’t shoot at our [troop] column while that Magomed did. You can’t find witnesses here. They all cover for each other. But we must take appropriate measures! And when they, the residents, understand that those who have not committed crimes are suffering because of the bandits, then they will start helping us.” Nikolai Britvin, deputy presidential envoy to the Southern federal district, said that Argun had become something of a haven for rebels who were being forced out of Chechnya’s mountains by Russian military operations, in part because the city had been “infected” by the “Wahhabi disease”–meaning Islamic fundamentalism (Kommersant, December 17).
The abuses in Argun were by no means exceptional, at least judging by reports recently published by Memorial. Earlier this month, the human rights group published a list of twenty-nine residents of the Chechen village of Avtury who were detained by Russian security forces during a zachistka carried out over December 1-3 and remained unaccounted for as of December 7. The report claims that more than sixty people were detained in Avtury and at least two of them severely beaten. On November 12, security forces in masks arrived at Grozny University and detained seven students. The incident sparked student demonstrations over the next several days, after which two of the detainees were released. One of them was reportedly beaten while in custody. The university has been the object of a number of such raids since the start of the latest military campaign in Chechnya, the targets being, according to Memorial, students whose parents had “engaged in military or sociopolitical resistance to the Russian army” during the 1994-1996 Chechen military campaign (Memo.ru, December 7).
Meanwhile, Alisolt Sakkazov, an aide to Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, was detained with his teenage son yesterday at a security checkpoint while driving through Argun. While Kadyrov was not in Chechnya yesterday and thus not available to comment on the incident, he was quoted today as insisting that “special operations must be continued” because a majority of the “bandits” had simply blended in with the republic’s civilians inhabitants. Kadyrov said he was sure that the situation in the republic would improve by next spring (RIA Novosti, December 19). Last week, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the presidential spokesman for issues relating to Chechnya, predicted that this winter would be the last for the Chechen resistance (RIA Novosti, December 13; see also Chechnya Weekly, December 18).
President Vladimir Putin has also been upbeat about the situation in Chechnya. In an interview with the Financial Times last week, he insisted that what was happening in Chechnya was “the rehabilitation of peaceful life, of the social sphere.” Putin stressed that the judiciary and prosecutor’s office in Chechnya were “operating,” with law enforcement agencies “fighting not only terrorists and separatists but also military personnel who commit crimes.” Putin said that twenty Russian servicemen had been charged with various crimes and punished (Financial Times, December 15).
MOSCOW HOSTS SECESSIONIST CONCLAVE.