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

Russians Rebut Camp Allegations

Moscow dismisses as blatant lies mounting allegations of brutality in Chechen detention camps.
By Alexander Voronin

Russia officials are hitting back at claims that thousands of Chechen civilians are being herded into "concentration camps" where they are ritually beaten, raped and executed by masked guards.


The Kremlin appointed Vladimir Kalamanov, head of the Russian Immigration Service, as its human rights envoy to Chechnya in response to international demands for a full investigation.


At the same time, federal spokespersons are dismissing the horrifying revelations as "blatant lies" and devoting huge efforts to highlighting alleged Chechen war-crimes.


The government propaganda offensive, however, has failed to stem the growing evidence of Russian brutality. Former inmates of special detention camps designed to separate Chechen civilians from rebels speak of indiscriminate Russian violence.


Refugees released from the Chernokozovo camp, northwest of Grozny, have reported horrible conditions. They say the camp is guarded by around 50 Cossack mercenaries from Rostov, Volgograd and Vladikavkaz, who enjoy a free hand to extort confessions from rebel suspects.


A 27-year-old former inmate who gave his name as Khassan Ismailov said inmates were stripped of their clothes, then made to stand upright for hours in refrigeration cells. The guards passed between the prisoners, beating them with truncheons and rifle-butts.


"They said any Chechen was a potential fighter, even if he had never carried a gun," said Ismailov. "They said they would turn us into cripples so that we wouldn't be fit for combat."


An older man, Vakha, said he had been interned in a detention camp during the 1994-96 Chechen campaign. "Then they were trying to swap us for Russian prisoners-of-war," he said. "Now their aim is genocide, to destroy the entire Chechen nation."


Vakha explained that the inmates of Chernokozovo were seized at random from towns in Russian-held territory - some were children as young as 10. Only hefty bribes could secure their release and then only on condition that they signed a document stating that they had been well treated.


Another ex-prisoner, Musa, told France's Le Monde newspaper that there were secret dungeons in the former Soviet prison where the guards kept inmates "who do not officially exist". They were mutilated by the Cossacks, who broke limbs or severed ears and fingers until they signed confessions that they had been members of armed rebel units.


Sultan Salataev, from Grozny, told the Caucasus press agency that he witnessed the murder of Zaindi Kantaev, a 75-year-old resident of Michurina, at Chernokozovo. Guards broke both Kantaev's arms, drenched him with petrol, then set him alight.


Salataev said that of the 45 inmates who shared his tent, seven were shot and two more were beaten to death.


The chorus of international protest has reached a crescendo. UN rights chief Mary Robinson has blasted the Russian government for keeping international observers at arm's length while NATO Secretary General George Robertson demanded a full investigation during a meeting with Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 16.


On Thursday, US State Department spokesman James Rubin echoed their outrage. "Russia has a clear obligation to investigate the numerous credible reports of civilian killings and alleged misconduct by its soldiers promptly," he said. The French trade association ADUA has become the first international organisation to announce an economic boycott on Russia in protest against human rights abuses.


Moscow's reaction has been largely symbolic. Putin has effectively snubbed the repeated calls for an international investigation of the abuse claims by appointing a Russian national to look into the allegations. Vladimir Kalamanov, sacked by Boris Yeltsin as special envoy to Ingushetia in 1999, hit the headlines in December over the callous treatment of refugees detained on the Chechen border.


At the same time, the Russian justice ministry has dismissed all accusations of torture as "blatant lies", saying that a few hundred Chechens suspected of links with the rebel forces were being held in so-called "control points". Both the United Nations and the Red Cross have been refused access to any detention camps.


Instead, the Kremlin's spokesman for Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, has chosen "to call the kettle black," as an editorial in Moskovsky Komsomolets put it.


He claimed in a recent radio broadcast that Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov had urged the rebels to take pleasure in their work. "When you catch a Russian, you should cut him and crush him and get pleasure out of it," Yastrzhembsky quoted Maskhadov as saying.


He went on to report that, on Thursday, federal police had charged 28-year-old Chechen Ramzes Gaichaev with the murder of 10 Russians, including a 10-year-old boy. Investigators said Gaichaev had killed his victims between November 1997 and April 1999, bursting into their homes and gunning them down with an automatic rifle.


Colonel-General Valery Manilov, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, has repeated claims that the rebels are planning a series of terrorist attacks across Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia and Ingushetia on February 23, the anniversary of Stalin's mass deportations of 1944.


He told a press conference on February 17 that victims of previous Chechen terrorist acts were now estimated at 1,600, nearly a third of them children. In the aftermath of the first Chechen campaign, 62 gangs of hostage-takers had kidnapped a total of 1,500 Russians and more than 10,000 Chechens, said General Manilov.


Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets