The war is officially over in Chechnya. However, human rights violations continue to take place on an almost daily basis. This includes enforced disappearances, reports of torture and murder by the federal security forces, acts of intimidation and murder against human rights activists and journalists. Also on a higher level – the introduction of laws by the Russian government, which impede the activity of human rights organizations or any international monitoring presence in North Caucasus.
In 1999, during the second Chechen war, Vladimir Putin ordered federal cleansing operations during which all men aged 15-60 were held for interrogation. Following these operations, thousands of people have disappeared without a trace in the last 15 years.
Today, the operations have switched to “anti-terror operations” and they spread to Ingushetia and Dagestan, and occasionally to Kabardino-Balkaria or Karachai-Cherkessia.
As noted by photographer Stanley Greene who documented the Chechen conflicts for a decade – some of the men who work to “maintain order in Chechnya” are criminals released from prison. Photo and text by Greene
Although the second Chechen war ended in May 2000, bombing campaigns continued to take place.
In April 2004, the village of Rigakhoy was subjected to aerial attack. A family of 6 was killed, including 5 small children. Upon seeing the house ruins, the Military Prosecutor’s Office told Imar Damaev (father of the children) that there were no grounds for opening a criminal case, and that the house had been destroyed as a result of the explosion of a gas cylinder or an explosive device that Damaev himself had been storing.
As a consequence, all the residents were forced to leave the village. In 2008, upon the return of a handful of residents in what was to be a state-sponsored rebuilding plan – the village was yet again attacked for unexplained reasons. See more details here Zumsoy Chechnya.
Civilians being hit or run over by Russian tanks was an all too common occurrence after the end of the war. Photographers Stanley Greene and Thomas Dworzak captured two such incidents.
The chilling graffiti on the prison’s walls, some of it written in blood, gave some of the most compelling evidence yet of what activists had claimed for years: state-sanctioned torture had been carried out in Chechnya, perhaps systematically, ever since Russian forces took Grozny in early 2000.
Inmates had scrawled their names and even the dates of their incarceration across the chamber’s fetid walls alongside desperate messages of the ordeals they had suffered.
“What day is it?” read one. “What year is it? Am I still alive?”
Those inmates who survived at the October prison had frequently tried to complain about their experiences, but they had been ignored. With the new evidence, however, the Kremlin may now have to listen to their stories.
One of the most harrowing is told by Alavdi Sadykov, a 56-year-old former PE teacher, who spent three months in the prison in 2000. Mr Sadykov does not know for sure why he was arrested, or why he was tortured for 83 days or even why he was released when so many of his fellow inmates were killed.
Six years later, still looking for answers and justice, Mr Sadykov told his story from his grimy one-room home on the outskirts of Grozny.
Moments after he was dragged into the October prison in March 2000, a sack over his head, he felt the blows of rifle butts smashing down on to his body that would become part of a grim daily routine for the next three months.
He vividly recalled a mock execution ordered by one of his chief tormentors, a man he identified as Igor who would frequently make him eat his own excrement.
“There was blood everywhere,” he recalled. “On the floor, on the walls. I could see brain tissue on the ceiling. Under my foot I saw a severed finger.
“They made me face the wall and then fired a few rounds above my head. After that they said they were going to play football and I was the football. I prayed for my own death.”
Soon after, Igor entered the cell with a colleague called Alexander. “Alexander knocked me off my feet and then stepped on my leg. He took a large souvenir dagger from his vest, pinched my left ear and cut it off.”
Barely conscious, he watched as Alexander cut off the ears of other inmates and killed at least one of them. The next day Alexander returned wearing a necklace of severed human ears.
When a new unit took over the prison, Mr Sadykov was eventually released without explanation.
Despite his harrowing ordeal, he remembered and then recorded the names of his tormentors – officers from the Khanty-Mansyisk division of the Russian army.
With the help of sympathetic officials in the Chechen administration, he even tracked down their addresses in Russia, evidence that could become crucial in the quest of so many held at the October prison for justice.
According to Natalya Estemirova, the head of the Memorial office in Grozny, there may be 15 secret torture chambers still operating in Chechnya.
It is not something the Kremlin, which is intent on showing that things have improved in Chechnya, wants to hear.
There is no doubt that some things have changed. Beneath the freshly painted facades of newly built internet cafes and coffee houses, drivers in recently purchased Ladas do battle on the Grozny’s Victory Boulevard.
Even if most of the city is still a ruin, Grozny is finally being rebuilt, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is able to show some tangible evidence to support his claims that the brutal second Chechen war is over.
Yet people still live in fear, not of the handful of militants still lurking in the mountains or even of Russian forces who brought misery to the province for so long, but of the fellow Chechens the Kremlin has chosen to lead them.
Around the city are placed militiamen in army fatigues – members of a 10,000-strong private army that pledges fealty to Ramzan Kadyrov, the lion-owning, 30-year-old prime minister anointed by the Kremlin.
Former rebels turned loyalists, many are radical Muslims bent on imposing the strict Islamic strictures Russia once fought to eradicate from the province. In recent months, they have shaved the heads of women accused of adultery, before stripping their victims and beating them.
Video footage of their ordeals are circulated by mobile phones as a warning to others.
It is not just women who have suffered at their hands, as anyone present in the village of Kurchaloi on Aug 5 would testify.
From a gas pipe suspended in the village square, hung the severed head of a rebel leader the Kadyrovtsy, as they are known, had captured two days earlier.
Russia’s top investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was among those watching the gruesome scene that late summer’s day. She was shot dead by an assassin.
In an article published posthumously, Mrs Politkovskaya alleged that the man responsible for the atrocity in Kurchaloi was Mr Kadyrov’s former deputy, Idris Gaibov. Among other cases she highlighted was the ordeal of Mr Sadykov.
Mrs Politkovskaya had dedicated her professional life to chronicling human rights abuses in Chechnya, and her murder caused outrage around the world.
She had worked courageously and methodically to expose the lie that torture in Chechnya had died.
Unofficial Places of Detention in the Chechen Republic
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights published a list containing unofficial places of detention in Chechnya, which were under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation, and were then gradually transferred to the militias lead by Pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
” The existence of numerous places of illegal detention is a novel trait of the present penitentiary system of Chechnya. Filtration camps, zindan pits, metal storage containers put into pits and filled with water, underground pedestrian street-crossings used as illegal prisons – everything of this kind has existed for quite some time now in in the Chechen Republic. “
Click on the link below to see the full 37 page report, including the full list of detention sites.
Usam Baysayev, a Human Rights Center “Memorial” employee recounts one of the hundreds of stories he worked on, which involved the use of a detention place as those described above – a tank filled with water.
The 21st Century: Is it Still Possible to Hide Monstrous Crimes?
January 13, 2009 – 27 year-old Umar Israilov ran on the streets of Vienna when he saw two men approaching him. The men pursued him and shot him repeatedly. Umar died on the way to hospital.
Umar Israilov (left) and Ramzan Kadyrov (right)
Umar had pledged for protection from police, fearing his life was in danger. According to an Austrian news report, his pledges were ignored and an important key-witness was deported back to Russia, where he disappeared without a trace. After Israilov’s murder, the police was accused of negligence (source).
Within a few months, the Austrian police linked Chechen president Kadyrov to the murder case.
Umar Israilov was a former bodyguard of Ramzan Kadyrov. He had arrived in Austria two years earlier as political refugee. He formally accused Russia’s government of allowing a macabre pattern of crimes in Chechnya.
In written legal complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, Mr. Israilov described many brutal acts by Mr. Kadyrov and his subordinates, including executions of illegally detained men. One executed man, Mr. Israilov said, had been beaten with a shovel handle by Mr. Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov, now a member of Russia’s Parliament. Another prisoner was sodomized by a prominent police officer and at Mr. Kadyrov’s order put to death.
Mr. Israilov said he and others had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov, who amused himself by personally giving prisoners electric shocks or firing pistols at their feet.
Israilov’s father had also been detained and tortured for a period of 11 months. According to him, Umar fought against the Russian forces during the second Chechen war, most probably as revenge for his mother’s death during the first war. He was captured in 2003 and forced to become part of Kadyrov’s team. This didn’t spare him from being tortured and threatened and he also was forced to witness various crimes.
The application of Umar Israilov’s father at the European Court of Human Rights is available here Israilov application (pdf file). He describes the tortures he was subjected to and other events he witnessed during the 11 month detention period.
Read Umar’s full story here, including details of the tortures applied by Ramzan Kadyrov himself – Slain Exile Detailed Cruelty of the Ruler of Chechnya
In June 2014, Gerard Depardieu (friends with Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin) hit Russian theaters with his new movie “Viktor,” starring Depardieu and British actress Elizabeth Hurley. Shot in Moscow and Chechnya, it purports to be a revenge film, with Depardieu taking on the criminal underworld that killed his son. It also presents the “extraordinary redevelopment” of Chechnya under Russian rule.
The movie contains torture scenes, an uneasy detail considering human rights organizations have accused Ramzan Kadyrov of such crimes. On a different note, another movie presenting Chechen deportations was banned this year in Russia (see more here “Ordered to forget”)
“Torture session” captured on phone camera. Videotaping is a common practice as the security forces are certain they will not suffer repercussions, and it is also used as intimidation tool. The second video shows a young victim.
Prosecuting human rights violations in Chechnya
Elza’s father and brother
Russian officer Yuri Budanov was one of only a handful of Russian officers to be prosecuted over what human rights groups say are widespread atrocities in Chechnya. In 2003, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the kidnap, rape and murder of Elza Kungaeva, 18-year-old girl from Chechnya.
On 24 December 2008, the court satisfied Budanov’s request to release him prior the end of the term.
Russian human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov presented the interests of the family of Elza Kungaeva‘s family; he appealed the court ruling on granting Budanov parole.
Markelov had also represented Anna Politkovskaya (journalist murdered in 2006), Mikhail Beketov (journalist severely beaten in 2008), victims of the Moscow theater hostage crisis (who seeked compensation from the Russian state for the mishandling of the rescue operation) and Chechen civilians who had been tortured.
After attending a press conference regarding Budanov’s release, the lawyer was shot in the face in broad daylight together with a female colleague, 25 year old Anastasia Baburova. According to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, the details of the murder indicate the involvement of Russian state security services.
Detention and “questioning”
On 27 April 2010, 20 year-old Zelimkhan Chitigov was taken away by 30 armed officers from his home. He was a Chechen refugee living in Ingushetia.
On 29 April 2010 at 14:05, police officers from the Karabulak OVD conducted a search of the rooms where Chitigov lived with his family while his family was absent. While searching the children’s room, they allegedly found a grenade. His mother is certain that the grenade was planted.
When Zelimkhan’s mother went to question the authorities, the head of the criminal investigation told them that Zelimkhan would be shown on TV giving his confession. Officially, in accordance to the interrogator’s petition, Zelimkhan was officially arrested on 30 April 2010 at 20:00, more than two days after his abduction.
Zelimkhan became sick during the court proceedings and he was taken by ambulance with police escort to the hospital. In a conversation with a lawyer, Zelimkhan said that police officers beat and tortured him. The lawyer made a request for a medical examination, but it was not granted. The denial was challenged in court, but the court also rejected the petition.
While in hospital, Zelimkhan was allegedly forced to decline a lawyer. His lawyer was also advised to decline the case.
Chitigov was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair as he was not able to walk on his own. The arguments of the lawyers with reference to Chitigov’s condition did not have an effect on the court and he was left under arrest.
As of 18 June 2010, Zelimkhan Chitigov remained under arrest in the hospital with the following diagnosis:
– burns caused by electrical shock
– muscle injuries
– brain trauma
– ataxic aphasia
– lower back injuries
– spinal chord injury
– lower body paralysis
– pelvic organ injuries causing incontinence
– severe post-traumatic stress disorder with a general stress-induced speech impediment
– kidney damage
– ear canal abscesses
– numerous injuries to the torso
– third degree burns on his feet.
Zelimkhan couldn’t walk on his own and spoke with difficulty.
Despite several attempts by Zelimkhan’s family to urge the authorities to identify and prosecute those responsible for his detention and torture, an investigation into his case began only after a protest was staged by local police officers who refused to obey what they called “unlawful orders to use violence”.
On December 5 2011, the mother of the victim Zelimkhan Chitigov moved a petition on providing her family with state protection after reportedly receiving threats from the defendants. The judge rejected the petition and the family was forced to leave Russia.
In October 2012, the court found several ex-officers guilty of torture. The case had gained attention due to the involvement of Memorial group – basically the only Human Rights still acting in North Caucasus.
Zelimkhan has recovered from the vegetative state, but he was left disabled and has a speech impediment.
Federal force abuses spilled into neighboring republics and virtually into the whole North Caucasus
Suspected “terrorist” killed in his home in Dagestan. Over 100 bullets were found in his body. No proof has been brought to link the man to terrorist organizations. His family sued the Russian security forces, but to no avail. (source)
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist who devoted herself to uncovering human rights abuses in Chechnya during and after the end of the war. One after the other, she uncovered physical proof of serious human rights abuses, including the false amnesty promised by Vladimir Putin himself.
In 2006, she was shot in her apartment building.
Her last (unfinished) report regarded proof of torture in detention centers. Photos from video extracts
Friends and colleague of Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova was another significant human rights activist and Memorial center employee, who succeeded Anna in her work. She uncovered numerous abuses taking place in Chechnya and she was living in Grozny, when she herself fell victim to kidnapping and murder in 2009.
After Estemirova’s murder, Memorial Human Rights Group closed its offices, leaving the civilian population with no organization to turn to anymore for assistance or help.
Natalia in Grozny 2005
A month later, two aid workers (husband and wife) were abducted from their office. Their bodies were found 2 days later, the pregnant woman bared signs of beating. www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/2123
Natalia’s work is carried on by the “Joint Mobile Group”, a group of human rights workers who work in teams of 3 people through rotation – one month each, in order to ensure continuation of the work in case one of them is hurt. The team received threats from the Chechen leader in a televised appearance in 2012 (source).
Read more about Joint Mobile Group – Monitoring Rights in Chechen Region, a Month at a Time
A few weeks after Anna’s murder, an ex-FSB officer who had accused Putin of ordering political killings and of orchestrating the 1999 apartment bombings (which were blamed on Chechnya) gave his last breath in London following intentional poisoning. These are his last words written on his death bed – from Alexander Litvineneko.
“As I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.
“You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value.
“You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. “
New Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Families of North Caucasus Insurgents
New legislation adopted by the Russian parliament in November aimed at punishing families and relatives of terrorist suspects, intends to legalize the “hard” form of counter-insurgency already practiced in several North Caucasus republics. Although the law has only recently been adopted, the collective punishment practices are already used by authorities across North Caucasus.
One of the common punishment practices involves destruction of property (blowing up residences) on the basis of mere suspicion. Upon proof of innocence, no compensation is being offered (read more here).
Conclusion from Human Rights Watch report regarding the current situation in Chechnya (and elsewhere)
Perpetrators of crimes against humanity are criminally responsible for their acts. Given the particular seriousness of these crimes, international law sets out special rules of responsibility for them. Thus, criminal responsibility cannot be avoided by invoking that the suspect holds an official position including that of head of state (referring to the lack of reaction from the international community). Statutes of limitations do not run in the cases of crimes against humanity and those responsible do not benefit from refuge in third countries.
Officials have often tried to attribute these crimes to Chechen fighters. However, it is inconceivable that ordinary criminals or Chechen rebel groups could so freely and openly stage the abduction and murder of hundreds of people without interference of the authorities in areas of Chechnya that have been under Russian control since early 2000. Thus, direct and circumstantial evidence points to forces under Kadyrov’s command and other Russian units.
UPDATE: In 2013, Kremlin promulgated a new law, which attacks and restricts the activity of Human Rights organizations. Read more here Human Rights and Kremlin