Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 26

If you were a Chechen who had been swept up by federal forces in one of their “zachistka” security sweeps–and if they did not simply kill you immediately–where would you least like them to take you? According to a report published on July 10 by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “One establishment stands out in terms of the frequency and gravity of the alleged ill-treatment, namely ORB-2.”

ORB-2, located in Grozny, is an Operative and Search Bureau of the Russian Ministry of the Interior. Russian officials have never included it in any of the official lists of detention facilities that they have provided to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, but the Committee’s monitors have concluded nevertheless that “persons certainly are being held there, on occasion for very lengthy periods of time.” When the monitors visited the facility two months ago they found that “it was holding seventeen persons, some of whom had been there for several months. The persons detained were extremely reluctant to speak to the delegation and appeared to be terrified. From the information at its disposal, the CPT has every reason to believe that they had been expressly warned to keep silent. All the on-site observations made at ORB-2, including as regards the general attitude and demeanor of the staff there, left the CPT deeply concerned about the fate of persons taken into custody at the ORB.”

It is harder for Russia to ignore the Committee for the Prevention of Torture than such private watchdog groups as Human Rights Watch. The committee is an official body of the forty-five-member Council of Europe and is thus a part of the “club” of western and central European states that post-Soviet Russia very much wants to join. The Russian Federation joined the Council in 1996 and formally signed the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1998. These actions grant the group, which is based in Strasbourg, France, the right to visit and inspect Russia’s prisons and other places of detention and to make recommendations designed to protect inmates from government cruelty.

Usually the Committee does not make public statements, so the July 10 report is a rarity–only the fourth in the last eleven years to publicly rebuke a member state for failing to cooperate with the Council of Europe’s efforts against torture and other cruelties to prisoners. Two of the previous three occasions involved Turkey; the third, like the latest, focused on Russia’s behavior in Chechnya.

The new report was based on six visits made to the northern Caucasus since 1999–most recently in May of this year–and hundreds of interviews conducted there with officials, ex-prisoners and others. It concluded that Russia had “failed to tackle effectively major problems” identified by the Committee in its previous report on Chechnya, published in 2001. This year’s report charged that the pro-Moscow police and military forces are still using electric shocks, beatings and other unacceptable methods against prisoners, and that efforts to file criminal cases against servicemen accused of such methods have still been “slow and in many cases ultimately ineffective.”

The Committee was able to interview ex-prisoners and others privately. It found that “a considerable number of persons interviewed independently at different places alleged that they had been severely ill-treated whilst detained by law enforcement agencies. The allegations were detailed and consistent, and concerned methods such as very severe beating, the infliction of electric shocks, and asphyxiation using a plastic bag or gas mask. In many cases, these allegations were supported by medical evidence. Some persons examined by the delegation’s doctors displayed physical marks or conditions which were fully consistent with their allegations.”

On the other hand, the Committee gave Russia credit for what it called “some steps forward….The Russian authorities have issued a number of orders and instructions aimed at reinforcing control over the operations conducted by the federal forces. The structures of the civil and military prosecutors’ offices have been developed, and mechanisms for better coordination between them introduced….The Committee also wishes to highlight that in the course of its most recent visits, hardly any allegations were received of ill-treatment by staff working in Ministry of Justice establishments in the Chechen Republic, namely SIZO No 2 (sledstvenny izolyator or interrogation prison) in Chernokozovo and the recently re-opened SIZO No 1 in Grozny.”

Like other human rights researchers, the Committee found that the Russians do not consistently observe these “orders and instructions aimed at reinforcing control” over federal operations. During a May 2002 visit to Argun, Kurchaloi and Urus-Martan, the Committee was told that “large-scale special operations” took place in accordance with the well-known “Order No. 80” of March 2002, by which prosecutors are supposed to accompany the servicemen. In fact, stated the Committee in its report, “a certain number of targeted activities by unidentified forces were apparently conducted without prior notification to the local military commanders and prosecutors. The delegation’s interlocutors spoke of the appearance at night of units, whose members wore masks and drove in vehicles without number plates, and who took away Chechen inhabitants to unknown locations. Prosecutors said that they were powerless to find out who had performed such activities and to locate the whereabouts of the persons detained. Some of the detained persons subsequently reappeared, but were apparently so terrified that they refused to talk about what had happened to them, let alone lodge complaints; others had disappeared without trace or their bodies, frequently mutilated, had subsequently been found.”

The Committee called on the Russian authorities to take a clear stand against such abuses, in both word and deed. Its report revealed that “on numerous occasions in the course of its dialogue with the Russian authorities, the Committee has stressed the importance of members of the federal forces and law enforcement agencies in the Chechen Republic being reminded, through a formal statement emanating from the highest political level, that they must respect the rights of persons in their custody (including those detained during special operations and targeted activities) and that the ill-treatment of such persons will be the subject of severe sanctions. A direct message of this kind from that level would provide crucial–much needed–support to existing measures designed to counter ill-treatment in the Chechen Republic. As far as the Committee can ascertain, such a message has not yet been delivered in a clear manner; it should be, without further delay.”

More concretely, the Committee recommended “that immediate measures be taken to exercise due control over all special operations and targeted activities in the Chechen Republic. In this connection, the Committee stressed the need for civil and military prosecutors to exercise close supervision, for complete lists to be drawn up of all persons detained for checks, and for information about their whereabouts to be provided without delay to their relatives.” It noted, “The fact that the existing orders and instructions are not always respected is explicitly acknowledged in Order No 98/110 of 23 April 2003 by the Commander and Military Prosecutor of the Allied Group of Forces….It is incumbent upon the Russian authorities to take adequate steps to ensure that operations by their forces are conducted in accordance with the law and standing orders and instructions, and that any violations committed during such operations are thoroughly and expeditiously investigated. In this connection, the CPT wishes to emphasize the importance of prosecutors being present not only during large-scale special operations but also when targeted activities are carried out; for the time being, such a presence is not guaranteed.”

The Committee also observed that “there are still no possibilities to perform full autopsies on the territory of the [Chechen] Republic” and called on the authorities to take steps to enable Chechnya’s Forensic Medical Bureau “to function adequately.”

On the Interior Ministry’s fearsome ORB-2, the July 10 report noted that the Committee “has repeatedly recommended that a thorough, independent inquiry be carried out into the methods used by ORB-2 staff when questioning detained persons; that recommendation has never been addressed in a meaningful manner. To argue that ‘a formal, written complaint is required for action to be taken’ is an indefensible position to adopt given the climate of fear and mistrust which currently pervades the Chechen Republic, and constitutes a dereliction of responsibility.”

The full text of the Committee’s report is available via its website