Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya: New Methods, Same Old Abuses

A night-time campaign of kidnappings and murders continues to terrorise Chechnya.
By Murad Magomadov

Thirty-two-year-old Umar Mantsigov recently got a job with Chechnya’s police force.


He was tasked with guarding a four-storey temporary settlement centre in the Zavodskoi district of Grozny, which was home to several hundred refugees recently returned from neighbouring Ingushetia. It is hard to find a job in the shattered Chechen capital, so his friends and relatives thought him a lucky man.


But at dawn on January 29, a minibus with no number-plates drew up outside the centre, and a group of armed men wearing masks and camouflage fatigues burst in and took Mantsigov away. Since then, his police colleagues and relatives have searched for the missing man – with no success.


Mantsigov’s family believe he was snatched because after the first Chechen conflict of 1994-96, he had several pictures taken of himself in the company of rebel fighters. Photographs such as this and even old newspapers from the period between 1991 and 1994 when Jokhar Dudayev was president, have reportedly been used to identify and target people in abductions and disappearances.


Arbitrary arrests and abductions, torture and killing are continuing in Chechnya, say witnesses and human rights monitors, although both the perpetrators and the methods they used have changed.


The abuses are often more covert, but are still being recorded every day – challenging the Russian federal government’s assertion that Chechnya is undergoing a “normalisation process” and daily life is improving.


On January 21, Moscow abolished the post of Russian presidential special representative for human rights in Chechnya, and sacked the incumbent Abdul-Khakim Sultygov.


Alexander Cherkasov, a leading expert on Chechnya with the Russian human rights group Memorial, said that Sultygov had been an official appointee who had done nothing to defend human rights. “The abolition of this post is just a confirmation of the existing reality,” he told IWPR by telephone from Moscow. “Nonetheless, a disgraceful situation is continuing there and there is a need for particular and heightened attention to Chechnya, which is not forthcoming from the Russian state.


“The situation remains very alarming. People are still being abducted, they continue to disappear.”


Memorial’s office in Ingushetia says that the numbers of abductions and killings it recorded in Chechnya in 2003 was less than the year before, but the change was not a significant one. In 2002 they recorded 729 killings of civilians and 537 people who were abducted and disappeared without trace. Last year the figures were around 500 killed and more than 470 disappeared.


These figures are incomplete, stresses Memorial’s Shakhman Akbulatov, and the real numbers could be much higher.


“Our organisation is able to cover only about 25 to 30 per cent of the territory of Chechnya,” he said. “The remaining regions, including the mountains, are inaccessible to our researchers.


“Even in the regions covered by our monitoring, Memorial cannot draw up an exhaustive report. Our rough estimates suggest that the total number of crimes committed against civilians in the Chechen Republic could be two or three times higher than the information we have at Memorial.”


The manner of the abuses has changed. The “mass cleansing operations” experienced by Chechen villagers two or three years ago, when the Russian military would arrive in force at a village and close it off for several days, are now a rarity. More common are now are what are described as “targeted cleansing operations”, when a group of armed men snatch one person at night – as happened with Mantsigov. In the majority of cases the abducted men are never seen alive again.


The infamous “filtration camps” at Chernokozova, PAP-1 (a former bus garage in Grozny) and the Khankala military base, where large numbers of Chechen men were detained and tortured, have virtually ceased to operate.


They have been replaced, however, by a series of underground pits, known as “zindans” (prisons), located at almost all military bases in the republic, including Khankala. These appear to be the destination of most of the abducted men - but few get out alive, and those relatives who do manage to extract their loved ones from a “zindan” are reluctant to speak about it.


The pro-Moscow government of Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov also now runs a series of small “private prisons” across the republic. One of them is in Tsentoroi, Kadyrov’s home village of Kadyrov, and is under the charge of his son, Ramzan. Two others have been set up in Pobedinskoe and Krasnaya Turbina outside Grozny, run respectively by Kadyrov’s security chief Movladi Baisarov and Russian special forces commander Said-Magomed Kakiev, who is a Chechen. Another special forces officer, Sulim Yamadayev, runs a “private prison” in the town of Gudermes.


The prominent role now being played by Kadyrov, who was elected president of Chechnya in October, has contributed to another major change in the republic. Many ordinary Chechens say that as well as special Russian military units – dubbed “death squads” by locals - they fear operations carried out by Kadyrov’s commanders.


Detachments of “Kadyrovtsy”, as these units are known, operate throughout Chechnya. On January 28-29, a joint force of“Kadyrovtsy” and police carried out a rare “mass cleansing operation” in Alleroi, the native village of rebel president Aslan Maskhadov. Two days later Sultan Dadayev, who led the operation, and four of his men were shot dead in Alleroi by pro-Maskhadov fighters.


The Kadyrov administration insists that the human rights situation in Chechnya is improving. A senior official in the interior ministry, who asked not to be named, said that, “the situation in the Chechen Republic is constantly improving. We can see a radical change for the better in comparison with 2000 and 2001.”


However, Kadyrov himself told a government meeting on January 23 that he was “concerned about the continuing abductions and disappearances”.


Both he and the Russian military blame Chechen pro-independence and Islamist fighters for the abductions.


Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, a senior Russian commander in charge of the “anti-terrorist operation” in Chechnya, said that the rebels were dressing up in military uniforms to carry out abductions and killings.


“They are doing this primarily to sow distrust of federal and local officials among the population, and to discredit the process of political settlement in Chechnya,” Shabalkin said. “Often they use fake documents from members of the security forces. There is plenty of proof of this.”


Shabalkin cited a case from mid-January when he said Russian troops had found “high-quality” fake identity documents for the Chechen police force and Kadyrov’s security service in a house near the village of Tangi-Chu.


While there is plenty of evidence that Chechen rebels have killed civilians in suicide bombings and raids, human rights monitors challenge the assertion that they are behind the abductions. They say that these raids are almost always carried out at night, during curfew hours, when large numbers of fighters could be easily spotted. The attackers are usually heavily armed and have special equipment, such as helmets with radio links and automatic weapons with silencers, which the rebel fighters do not have.


“Practically all the abductions, murders, robberies and looting happen at night and are carried out by men in masks and military uniforms,” said Alkhazur Suleimanov, a former Chechen policeman. “In most cases the bandits arrive in armoured vehicles or several cars. And only soldiers or employees of the security services can travel freely in Chechnya by night, when there are checkpoints at every step of the way. It’s obvious they wouldn’t clash with their own people.”


Another worrying phenomenon is the increased targeting of Chechens living in Ingushetia. On January 12, Khamzat Osmayev, a 50-year-old doctor who had lived in the neighbouring republic since the conflict began, was abducted from his office in the village of Plievo.


Two weeks later, Osmayev was dumped in wasteland near Ingushetia’s Magas airport. He told Memorial that he had been beaten and tortured by a group of men demanding information about Chechen fighters. The only explanation he could give about why he was targeted was that in a wedding photograph taken in 1999, he had shared the frame with Chechen warrior Shamil Basayev.


Osmayev believes he was held either in the Russian military base at Khankala or in Grozny.


Anna Neistat, who researches Chechnya for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says she will remain pessimistic unless and until the Russian justice system changes its attitude on Chechnya.


“We can only begin to say that the problem is being solved when all the cases of abductions and disappearances are investigated and brought to an end, and not as now, when the prosecutor’s office opens criminal charges on an abduction and then closes it a couple of months later,” she said. “Serious changes for the better will only begin when the disappearances become very rare, they are all investigated and those responsible end up in court.”


Murad Magomadov is a journalist with the Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper in Chechnya.


More IWPR's Global Voices