RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SAY SITUATION IN CHECHNYA IS “MONSTROUS”
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 5
On January 29, Demos, the Moscow-based human rights think-tank, and the Memorial human rights group issued a joint report on the “counter-terrorist operation” in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more generally. Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the region as returning to normal, “nothing has really been normalized,” the Associated Press quoted Demos head Tatyana Lokshina as saying. “Yes, we can and we should be happy for the new freshly painted buildings and the clean streets and the fountains built in Grozny…but despite all that, the human rights situation there remains monstrous,” Lokshina said. The news agency quoted Dmitry Kozak, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern District, as acknowledging that the North Caucasus remains volatile. “The main factor destabilizing the situation in southern Russia today and containing economic growth is corruption,” Kozak said at a meeting with scholars in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. “Nobody is concerned any longer about terrorist activity and crime levels – everybody is afraid of extortion by the authorities, their prejudice, their bias.”
Gazeta, on January 30, provided details of the Demos-Memorial report. According to the newspaper, the report notes that the current situation differs from the previous years in that violence between Chechens has spilled over into other parts of Russia. It noted the attempted armed takeover of the Samson-K meat-processing plant in St. Petersburg by gunmen reportedly led by the commander of the pro-Moscow Vostok battalion, Sulim Yamadaev (Chechnya Weekly, October 5 and September 21, 2006), and the assassination of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov’s main Chechen opponent, Movladi Baisarov in Moscow last November (Chechnya Weekly, November 22, 2006).
A co-author of the report, Tatyana Lapshina of Memorial, told Gazeta that the situation in Chechnya is not stabilizing at all, despite the fact that the number of abductions has declined. According to the report, 186 people were kidnapped in Chechnya in 2006, of whom 63 disappeared without a trace and 11 were found dead. This was a notable improvement over previous years: in 2002, 539 people disappeared; in 2003, 497; in 2004, 448; in 2005, 320. Still, as Gazeta noted, last year’s figure was “gigantic” compared to other Russian regions and for a republic supposedly re-establishing peace.
The report also notes another trend, which Gazeta described as “omerta, Chechen-style”: the number of people appealing to the authorities about relatives who have disappeared has dropped drastically. “But this does not indicate stabilization,” Gazeta wrote. “The reason is far more terrible: people have become more fearful.” The newspaper quoted the report as stating: “We find out about abductions third hand. But even when we come [to the victims’ relatives], they try not to tell us anything.” Memorial’s Lapshina told the newspaper that this state of affairs developed after control over security was transferred from the federal to the local siloviki. “Local residents can talk without fear only about the unlawful actions of the federal forces, but they are silent about the analogous actions by the kadyrovtsy,” Gazeta wrote. It quoted Lapshina as saying: “The farther the process of Chechenization goes, the stronger the curtain of silence. There is a lot going on that we are not finding out about.” She noted that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the judicial authorities practically never prosecute the siloviki for rights violations, citing the example of the disappearance of 11 people from the village of Borozdinovskaya in 2005.
Gazeta also cited the case of Malika Soltaeva, the 23-year-old resident of the town of Argun who was abducted in February 2006 and whose abductors forced her to confess to alleged marital infidelity, beat her, shaved her head and painted it green – painting a green cross on her forehead – while videotaping the entire incident (Chechnya Weekly, January 25; May 25, 2006). Gazeta noted that Soltaeva and her father tried to file a criminal complaint with the authorities but that they had refused to accept it, and that the case only gained momentum after it was covered by Western media, including the New York Times. As Gazeta noted, it is not simply fear that keeps relatives of those who have disappeared from talking. According to the Demos-Memorial report, police often urge relatives to withdraw their formal complaints, telling them: “Why deprive yourselves of your last chance to free your relative? A go-between will appear, and you will come to an understanding with him. But if you raise a clamor, there won’t be such an opportunity.”
According to Gazeta, the authors of the Demos-Memorial report “tried very hard to tone down the criticism of the authorities.” The report says that in order to protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the state not only has the right, but also the obligation to carry out a tough fight against terrorism. “However, the actions taken by the Russian authorities in Chechnya and the North Caucasus since the fall of 1999 under the flag of the fight against terrorism does not fall under the definition of a counter-terrorist operation (KTO),” the report states. It adds that the way in which force was employed “turned the KTO into a criminal action leading to mass victims and gross violations of human rights.” One such violation is forced confessions. “They abduct young people, put them in illegal prisons, apply torture and get confessions,” Tatyana Lapshina of Memorial told Gazeta. “Later, they (the abductees) are transferred to official institutions and registered as [rebel] fighters.”
According to the report, there are many illegal prisons in Chechnya, but the most notorious are those located in Tsentoroi (the Kadyrov family’s hometown), Khankala and the Gudermes district settlement of Dzhalka. Elina Ersenoeva, the young Chechen journalist who was reportedly forced to marry Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basaev and was subsequently abducted at gunpoint after receiving threats from kadyrovtsy may have ended up in one of those prisons (Chechnya Weekly, September 15, 2006). Ersenoeva’s mother was also subsequently kidnapped (Chechnya Weekly, October 12, 2006). “In the opinion of the Memorial staffers, both women were murdered a long time ago,” Gazeta wrote.
Novaya gazeta, in conjunction with Memorial, detailed several recent incidents of human rights abuses in Chechnya and the neighboring republics in its January 29 edition. One incident took place in the town of Argun on January 9, when a 76-year-old resident, Sumaya Abzueva, was beaten up as she was walking to a local market. According to Memorial, the possible reason for the attack was that Abzueva had been seeking an investigation into the abduction and murder of her son in November 2005, reportedly by members of the Argun branch of the Anti-Terrorist Center (ATC), the armed formation that operated under the control of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov until it was dissolved last year. The Anti-Terrorist Center was restructured into two units of the Chechen Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops – the Sever and Yug battalions.
Prior to the attack, Abzueva had been threatened by her son’s alleged abductors, who were also her neighbors. On September 26, 2006, her neighbor Sultan Buluev tried to get her into his car; the next day, two other neighbors, Arbi Mamaev and Anzor Bataev, drove a car threateningly around her until passers-by “shamed” them away. Abzueva alleges that the three men had kidnapped and murdered her son while they were members of the Argun ATC.
The Chechen prosecutor’s office, however, did not detain the three suspects because they joined the ranks of the republic’s security forces after the ATC was dissolved. Bataev and Buluev were transferred to the Yug battalion while Mamaev joined the Chechen Interior Ministry’s patrol-sentry regiment (PPSM-2). “It did not seem possible to the civilian prosecutor’s office to detain Bataev and Mamaev, given that they were now servicemen,” Novaya gazeta wrote. “And to transfer the case to the military prosecutor’s office would not be possible as long as it was unproven that military men had committed the crime. Under that pretext, the three were left at liberty, and Abzueva wound up practically under house arrest, afraid to go outside and not even feeling safe at home – not without grounds, as [the incident on] January 9 showed.” Novaya gazeta added: “The paradox is that in order to become a soldier in the ‘Yug’ or ‘Sever’ battalions, it was sufficient to simply fill out an application. They were not subjected to vetting, at least by the prosecutor’s office.”
The other incident detailed by Novaya gazeta and Memorial involved the abduction of a resident of the village of Kartsa in North Ossetia on the evening of January 10. According to their account, Sultan Barakhoev was driving home with a friend, Vakha Keligov, when a car pulled up beside them. A policeman, Soslan Tsoraev, and an unidentified man – both dressed in civilian clothes – were in the second car. After asking Barakhoev who Keligov was – Barakhoev replied that his friend was a player with Ingushetia’s “Angusht” soccer team – two others cars pulled up, from which eight uniformed men jumped out and tried to detain both Barakhoev and Keligov. Keligov managed to escape and make it home, and shortly afterward, he and his relatives went to the village police department to file a report about Barakhoev’s abduction. The police refused to take a report of the incident, but an officer there was able to determine that Barakhoev had been taken to district police headquarters in Vladikavkaz. When Barakhoev’s relatives arrived at the headquarters, however, police would not allow them in or answer their questions. On January 11, Barakhoev’s uncle was told by a police investigator that a grenade had been found on Barakhoev, after which Vakha Keligov appealed to the office of the Memorial human rights group in Nazran, Ingushetia, and Barakhoev’s relatives hired a lawyer. That evening, Barakhoev was released after signing a pledge not to leave the area.
On January 13, Barakhoev provided Memorial with details about the incident. He told the human rights group that after he was taken to the police headquarters in Vladikavkaz, a plastic bag was placed over his head, preventing him from breathing, and that he was struck with a heavy object on his heels, legs and torso until he lost consciousness. Barakhoev said that when he regained consciousness, one of the policemen reached into the left pocket of his (Barakhoev’s) jacket and pulled out the fuse from a grenade. Barakhoev complained to investigators that the grenade had been planted on him. Before releasing him, however, the investigators tried to force him to waive his right to a lawyer and to sign a written statement saying that he did not know how the grenade and fuse ended up in his jacket pocket.