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Fate of Chechen-Press Reporter Unknown

The Russians are questioning Chechen journalist Taisa Isaeva over her alleged involvement in two sensational kidnappings
By Ruslan Isaev

The Russian authorities are remaining tight-lipped over the whereabouts of a Chechen journalist arrested last week in a remote mountain pass on the Georgian border.

Amnesty International is spearheading the growing outcry over the arrest of Taisa Isaeva, of the Tbilisi-based Chechen-Press news agency. Campaigners fear she may have been interned in a notorious "filtration camp" where rape, beatings and summary executions are thought to be commonplace.

However, the Russian authorities say Isaeva is suspected of taking part in several kidnappings including the abductions of a Moscow TV crew in 1997 and of two British charity workers in the same year.

The 28-year-old reporter was carrying a video-camera and laptop computer when she was arrested at the Nizhny Zaramag checkpoint in North Ossetia. She was travelling from Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, into Georgia.

Chechen vice-president Akhmed Zakaev said Isaeva had no links to the rebel Informcentr run by propaganda minister Movladi Udugov. A graduate of the Stavropolsky University, she had worked as a journalist since 1993 and had been employed by Nokhcho, the Chechen state cultural TV channel, from 1997 until its closure last year.

Chechen-Press has launched an appeal for support on its website: "We journalists urge our colleagues across the world to offer help and solidarity. Any journalist in Russia today could find himself in the same situation as Isaeva. We appeal to any organisation which considers the words 'human rights' to have real meaning to do its utmost to secure Taisa Isaeva's release."

In a statement published last week, Amnesty International said it was "extremely concerned that Taisa Isaeva might have been taken to a secret 'filtration camp' where she would be held incommunicado and would be at risk of torture and ill-treatment."

The London-based organisation added, "This latest incident again calls into question the Russian authorities' commitment to freedom of expression."

Meanwhile, the Russian security services claim that Isaeva is closely linked to rebel groups and served as a signals expert in Akhmed Zakaev's unit during the first Chechen war.

A spokesman for the Federal Security Service said that the journalist had also played a direct role in luring kidnap victims into the clutches of Chechen terrorist gangs. He cited the abduction of NTV reporter Yelena Masyuk and her two-man camera team in 1997. The hostages were seized in Dagestan and held in a mountain cave for 102 days. They were released after NTV paid an undisclosed sum to the kidnappers.

The spokesman said Isaeva was also being questioned about the seizure of two British charity workers, Jon James and Camilla Carr, who disappeared from a Grozny suburb in July 1997. The hostages were released 14 months later, with both Russia and Britain denying that any ransom had been paid.

The Russians believe that Isaeva was the director of Chechen-Press which has been based in Tbilisi since March of this year. They say the arrest constitutes a major blow against the Chechen propaganda machine which has been the target of relentless harassment since Moscow launched its "anti-terrorist" campaign in September.

In February, federal agents announced they had destroyed a TV transmitter in Oktyabrskoe, on the Dagestan border, which was being used by the rebel Kavkaz station. Since that time, Kavkaz bulletins have been distributed on video-tape and passed from hand to hand.

Last month, Russian security forces arrested Vakha Dadulagov, 61, the editor of an underground Chechen newspaper, Ichkeria, described as "the official organ of the rebel government". Dadulagov, who was attempting to smuggle issues of the paper through a Russian checkpoint at the time of his arrest, has been charged with stirring up racial hatred. Last week, the Ichkeria printing press was discovered in the Alkhan-Yurt region and destroyed.

The last remnant of the pre-war Chechen media, Groznensky Rabochy ("The Grozny Worker"), is still printed in Ingushetia and distributed widely across the Caucasus. Although the Russians have done little to censor material printed in the paper, its pre-war circulation of 50,000 has dropped to around 3,000.

Ruslan Isaev is a regular IWPR contributor

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