IX. THE SERNOVODSK SWEEP (JULY 2 AND 3, 2001)
Sernovodsk is a village in western Chechnya, approximately ten kilometers from the border with Ingushetia. After Russian troops were stationed in Sernovodsk in November 1999, the village was relatively peaceful for about eighteen months, and Human Rights Watch documented few serious abuses against civilians there.127
In addition to its permanent population of approximately 7,000 people, Sernovodsk for almost two years has also served as the temporary home for thousands of displaced persons from other parts of Chechnya.128 Shortly after retaking the village, Russian government officials stated that displaced Chechens could safely return to Sernovodsk and, in early December 1999, announced they would build facilities for the displaced there.129 In late June 2001, 2,611 IDPs were living in Sernovodsk in dozens of railway carriages, a former student home, and in private houses.130
On July 1, 2001, a remote-controlled mine exploded on a road three kilometers outside Sernovodsk, killing five Russian soldiers. 131 That same day, Russian soldiers came into the village and aggressively warned inhabitants they would conduct a sweep operation. They detained at least two young men (see below) and an elderly shepherd near the scene of the explosion. The shepherd was released the same day; the two young men were released a week later.
On the night of July 1-2, Russian troops encircled Sernovodsk. Villagers said they heard the noise of military vehicles throughout the night and realized there would be a sweep operation the next morning.132 As became apparent later, the soldiers set up a temporary overnight base just outside Sernovodsk along the road east to Samashki and moved military vehicles into town, blocking many intersections.
On the morning of July 2, the soldiers told villagers to stay in their homes. One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that when she and her family got up at around 6:00 a.m. to take their cattle to the fields, several helicopters were circling the town and soldiers told them, "Keep the cows in the courtyard, don't go outside, you are surrounded."133 She said at that time several helicopters were circling the town.134 The soldiers also forbade the head of the village and regional administrations-who had, contrary to Russian internal regulations, not been informed of the sweep operation-to leave his offices during the sweep.135
Later that morning, the soldiers-often in uniforms without any form of identification and, by some accounts, drunk-checked homes and detained men all over town, often without as much as checking their identity papers. They also conducted checks at the temporary residences of IDPs. One IDP living in railway carriages told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers came with big attack dogs to check passports and detained a number of men.136 The soldiers also came to the so-called tekhnikum, a building that once had housed students but at that time was in use as a residence for IDPs. Soldiers surrounded the building, searched it, and took the men out onto the street where they forced them to kneel on the sidewalk. One IDP estimated some fifty people were eventually taken away.137 Villagers said that among the detainees were children as young as fourteen or fifteen years old. For example, a local schoolteacher told Human Rights Watch she witnessed the detention of two of her students, fourteen or fifteen years old, on Lenin Street.
The boys were released that evening. They had apparently not been harmed.
Many villagers asserted that soldiers detained all males between fifteen and fifty-five.139 The village administrator's account is different, though disturbing enough. Vakha Arsamakov, the head of administration of Sernovodsk, estimated that the soldiers detained 182 IDPs and 438 inhabitants of the town on that day-a large number, but not close to being all the males between fifteen and fifty-five.140 Some villagers evidently avoided being detained by paying bribes to the soldiers or hiding.141 Several witnesses also said soldiers had simply checked their papers and not detained them.
The soldiers took most of the detainees to the temporary base that they set up just outside Sernovodsk, not far from the mosque. According to villagers, soldiers had lined up military vehicles in a field and set up a tent camp. Many of the detainees were held in the field while others were taken into an unfinished or partially destroyed building with an open basement. Many of the men on the field were forced to lie face down. Others were forced to kneel on the ground without moving or speaking or face beatings as punishment. The soldiers randomly took detainees from the field or basement to military vehicles or tents where they beat them or subjected them to electric shocks.
In the meantime, female relatives of the detainees gathered at the edge of the field to demand the release of their relatives and were held back by tanks and dogs. When twelve detainees were loaded onto a bus for transportation to a detention center in Achkhoi-Martan, some of the women threw stones at the soldiers.
At around midnight, most of the detainees-with the exception of those transported to Achkhoi-Martan-were released. According to some eyewitnesses, detainees were permitted to go home on the condition that they voluntarily returned to the close-by mosque early the next morning.142
During the night of July 3-4, Russian troops conducted another operation at the railway carriages. Many of the IDPs panicked and fled to Ingushetia. A female IDP, who lived in one of the wagons, told Human Rights Watch that at 4:00 a.m. the soldiers came and started detaining men and searched her compartment thoroughly. They did not ask for any passports, she said, but simply took the men. She left the wagons afterwards and went to Ingushetia.143
According to another woman, the word that soldiers were randomly detaining IDP men without even looking at their identity papers immediately spread along the forty-odd railway carriages. She said she and many others decided not to wait for the soldiers but to flee.144 A third woman, who said she was afraid that her brothers might be detained the next day, told Human Rights Watch she and her two brothers left at 3:00 a.m. and walked through the hills.145 These women said they were part of a large group-one estimated several hundred people-that followed trails over the hills for about 90 minutes. Human Rights Watch interviewed them just days later in Ingushetia.
Torture and Other Ill-Treatment
The testimony of former detainees, their relatives and numerous other villagers collected by Human Rights Watch researchers, as well as numerous written appeals from residents or IDPs from Sernovodsk to the local administration, reveal that dozens if not hundreds of detainees were subjected to torture or ill-treatment on July 2 and 3. Detainees suffered sustained beatings, electric shocks, and were forced to sit in painful positions for extended periods of time without moving. Several eyewitnesses said the older men were often treated worse than boys in their mid-teens.
Human Rights Watch conducted detailed interviews with four men who had been detained during the sweep in Sernovodsk and who said they had been beaten severely; three had also been subjected to electric shock. Human Rights Watch conducted further detailed interviews with the relatives of a fifth man, who was detained and ill-treated in various ways, including electric shock. Of the five detainees, two had been held at the temporary base outside Sernovodsk, two at the temporary police precinct in Achkhoi-Martan, and one in a pit not far from Assinovskaia. Two of the detainees were released the day of their detention, one a day later. The two others were held for one week.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed copies of fifty-one appeals from residents or IDPs from Sernovodsk to the local administration, concerning a total of twenty-nine detainees. With regard to twenty of these detainees, the appeals stated clearly that they had been ill-treated or tortured; one stated that the detainee had returned home in a "state of shock."146 According to the appeals, eleven of the twenty detainees were beaten for long periods; nine suffered electric shock; and five had been forced to kneel for hours with T-shirts over their eyes. One detainee was allegedly threatened with execution.
The Torture of Bisultan and Muslim Barkhaev
Soldiers detained the two brothers, as well as a shepherd, on July 1 immediately after the explosion that killed several soldiers on the road just outside Sernovodsk. The brothers told Human Rights Watch they had been looking for nuts in the area and were not involved in the explosion. The soldiers immediately brought them to the temporary police precinct in Achkhoi-Martan, where they were held in separate cells. The men were taken for questioning a number of times and, on the third day, experts checked their hands for traces of explosives.147 It was unclear why this assessment was carried out only after three days.
Both brothers told Human Rights Watch they were beaten and tortured on numerous occasions throughout the six days of their detention and gave detailed descriptions of some of the torture. A Human Rights Watch researcher examined their injuries approximately a week after their release: Bisultan had severe bruising on his back and bruises under both eyes; indeed his back was covered in long, horizontal bruises of a light brown or gray color and about one inch wide, giving it the appearance of being striped. The researcher also noted that the bruises were healing when viewed. Muslim showed little or no bruising, but had deep gouges on his wrists, the result of having been handcuffed.
Both men said they were subjected to electric shock on several occasions, although they provided details on its use only on Muslim. They described a little machine with a crank that soldiers used to generate a current. The brothers said the soldiers put wires in their mouths, attached them to their ears or taped them to their stomachs in the kidney area. According to Muslim, the soldiers once applied electric shock to his genitals, saying that they wanted to make sure he would not be able to have an erection in the future.
Once, by their accounts, soldiers forced Bisultan to watch the torture of Muslim with electric shocks. The brothers said that the soldiers put Muslim in an armchair, handcuffed his hands behind his back to the chair, and put a piece of fabric in his mouth. They then tied wires to the handcuffs, saying it would have a "marvelous effect," and applied electric shock. Muslim said that he struggled against the electric shocks while handcuffed, and that this had produced the deep gouges on his wrists, which he showed to a Human Rights Watch researcher.
Both brothers said that, on the second day of their detention, three masked men tortured them, evidently with the aim of making them confess to placing the mine on July 1. The men forced Bisultan to sit down and handcuffed him; one forced his mouth open and put something in so he couldn't lock his teeth. According to Bisultan, one of the men then started to file one of his teeth. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the damage when interviewing Bisultan. Muslim said that a police chief also questioned him that day. When he refused to confess to planting the mine, the police chief left the room and the three men in masks entered the room and beat him severely.
On July 7, the police officers forced the brothers to sign what they called an "amnesty decision." The brothers were then taken to the procuracy office. On the way, police officers warned them not to tell the procuracy about the abuses they had suffered. Later that day, the two were released.
The Torture of "Magomed Arsanukaev"
On the morning or early afternoon of July 2, a group of soldiers came to "Magomed Arsanukaev's" house to check his documents. Arsanukaev told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers behaved relatively properly: they checked the house, checked his documents and left.148 A second group of soldiers stopped by the house around 4:00 p.m. They did not explain anything but grabbed Arsanukaev and threw him into a truck.
Along with other detainees already in the truck, and others added at the train station, he was taken to the temporary base outside Sernovodsk and then to a place near Assinovksaia. At around 8:00 p.m., Arsanukaev said, he and the others were taken off the truck and forced into a large concrete pit normally used for the production and storage of food for cattle (silosnaia yama in Russian). He estimated there were sixty detainees in the pit. The soldiers made them kneel with their hands behind their heads and did not allow them to get up. Arsanukaev said that when one of the detainees asked to be taken to the toilet, the soldiers threw stones into the pit and scolded the man for addressing them as soldiers rather than officers.
Over the next few hours, Arsanukaev said, the soldiers pulled out detainees one by one for interrogation; he was the twelfth or thirteenth to be lifted out of the pit. In a shed a number of officers asked him questions like "Where are the rebel fighters?" and "Where is rebel leader Khachikaev?" Arsanukaev said the officers struck him in the back with their rifle butts seven or eight times-not very hard-when he said he did not know the answers to their questions.
Next the officers applied electric shocks. Arsanukaev told Human Rights Watch:
The officers eventually understood he was not going to tell them anything and took him back to the pit. Many, though not all, of the other detainees were subjected to similar treatment, he said: some of the older men were not taken out for questioning.
The next morning, soldiers pulled detainees out of the pit one by one. Arsanukaev's father and mother were present, but he was not able to talk with them, so he did not know if they had paid a ransom for his release. Once freed, he fled immediately to Ingushetia.
The Torture of "Aslambek Azuev"
In the morning of July 2, "Aslambek Azuev's" twelve-year-old son went with a little girl to a nearby kiosk to buy sugar. When they left the courtyard, soldiers approached and beat the boy about the head and back with their rifle butts. Azuev, witnessing the incident, ran to the children and tried to protect them, at which point the soldiers began beating him. When other relatives came running outside, the soldiers ripped a golden chain off his mother-in-law's neck and demanded that she hand them her earrings. They then left.149
Later that day, soldiers returned and arrested neighborhood men. Azuev said the soldiers put him and many other men in an APC and took them to a place where all detainees from the neighborhood were collected. The soldiers put some sort of bags over their heads there as blindfolds and loaded them into a military vehicle. Among the men in the vehicle Azuev was able to see, despite the blindfold, some who had already been beaten badly. The detainees were taken to the temporary base along the road to Samashki, where they were confined inside the foundations of an unfinished building. Nearby, Azuev saw special police vehicles with partitions and iron bars. He said the place was surrounded by tanks with their gun barrels pointed at the detainees, and that he heard screams of people from the adjacent field. Soldiers then forced him and the others to kneel with makeshift blindfolds over their faces. They were not allowed to move and risked beatings and kicking if they did.
Azuev said the soldiers took detainees one by one from the unfinished building into the police vehicles, from which he heard terrible screams, and he also was taken there. Inside the vehicle there was a metal bench. On the left and right hand side of the wall were hooks to which handcuffs had been attached. Azuev said he saw a lot of blood in the vehicle. He said his hands were put in the handcuffs on the walls. At first, he said, the soldiers hit him and started to ask him questions such as, "Who of your relatives is a rebel fighter?" When he answered he did not know, one of the soldiers apparently hit him with a nightstick in the stomach. He said he bent over and fainted. When he came to, he was back in the foundation. Other detainees told Azuev that they had been tortured with electric shocks in the vehicles.
Azuev was released late in the evening of July 2.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Zeinap Khajieva, an aunt of Anzor Ulaev. According to her account, soldiers detained nineteen-year-old Anzor Ulaev at his home on July 2 and loaded him into a vehicle. The soldiers pulled his T-shirt over his head as a makeshift blindfold and handcuffed him, and then took him to a place he could not identify. He told his aunt that the soldiers had threatened him with an attack dog, telling him to "give a leg" to the dog on several occasions. He also said the soldiers subjected him to electric shocks three times. According to Khajieva, the first two times the current was not strong but Ulaev said the third time he was thrown up into the air. The soldiers reportedly also beat him. Khajieva told Human Rights Watch that her nephew had one black eye and numerous bruises on his torso and legs when she saw him.
Ulaev was released that same night, together with most of the other detainees.
Human Rights Watch received information on the "disappearance" of two men from Sernovodsk after they were taken into custody by Russian soldiers. The relatives of both men have actively but unsuccessfully sought information about their whereabouts. The Russian government has not provided a credible explanation of the fate of the two men.
Two men, Zelimkhan Umkhanov and Apti Isigov, "disappeared" after Russian forces took them into custody during the Sernovodsk sweep.
At about 12:00 noon on July 2, an APC stopped near Apti Isigov's house on Pervomaiskaia Street. Several soldiers entered the yard where Apti Isigov and his cousin, Rustam Isigov, had already prepared their passports for an identity check. According to Rustam Isigov and one other eyewitness, the soldiers took their passports without looking at them, and ordered the two men into the APC.150 The soldiers drove them to the temporary military base, picking up more men along the way.
At the temporary base, the soldiers brought the detainees to the basement of the destroyed building and ordered them to kneel. According to Rustam Isigov, about five minutes later an officer approached Apti Isigov and took him away.151 From testimony of other detainees, Isigov relatives later learned that the officer put Apti Isigov back into an APC. These men, who were detained later that afternoon, told the relatives Apti Isigov was in the APC when they were put in the vehicle.152
At about 4:00 p.m., soldiers detained Zelimkhan Umkhanov and his brother, Jabrail, close to their home on Kutalova Street.153 According to Jabrail Umkhanov, the soldiers separated the two men at that time, putting Zelimkhan into an APC. After the sweep operation, Taisa Isaeva, Zelimkhan Umkhanov's wife, learned from released detainees that Apti Isigov was already in that APC.
Following the detentions, Apti Isigov's mother and Zelimkhan Umkhanov's wife went to the temporary base.154 They stayed outside the base until after midnight, trying to secure the release of their relatives. The soldiers released most detainees, including Rustam Isigov and Jabrail Umkhanov, over the course of that evening but Apti Isigov and Zelimkhan Umkhanov were not among those released. The remaining detainees-according to the relatives, a bus full of people-were transported to Achkhoi-Martan.
The next morning, the women went to the temporary police precinct in Achkhoi-Martan. Police officials there showed them a list of approximately forty names of detainees that included Zelimkhan Umkhanov and Apti Isigov. However, when the next day the officials released Sernovodsk detainees, neither Isigov nor Umkhanov were among them. Moreover, the released detainees told the women that they had not seen Isigov and Umkhanov at the police precinct. The Achkhoi-Martan procurator later told the relatives that Isigov and Umkhanov had not been there.155
Relatives have searched for Isigov and Umkhanov, but to no avail. They have contacted and petitioned numerous officials, including the local head of administration, the police, the local procuracy, the procuracy of Chechnya, and the General Procuracy, the office of Vladimir Kalamanov, and the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnya. The procuracy has opened a criminal investigation but, as of this writing, the relatives of Apti Isigov and Zelimkhan Umkhanov have no information on their fate or whereabouts.
Several eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers engaged in extortion during identity checks in Sernovodsk. Some soldiers apparently demanded money from villagers for not detaining them or their relatives. Human Rights Watch had not previously received reports of such demands of "protection money." In Sernovodsk several sources described the practice. For example:
· "Zura Zubaeva" told Human Rights Watch that soldiers came to Komsomolskaia Street and wanted to detain her neighbor's three sons.156 They loaded the three men onto a truck and forced them to sit on their knees. When the mother of the men fainted, the soldiers demanded money for their release. The parents agreed and paid, after which the sons were allowed to stay at home. Zubaeva did not know how much money her neighbors had paid the soldiers.
· A man from Sernovodsk told Human Rights Watch that his twenty-six-year-old cousin paid soldiers two hundred rubles (approximately seven U.S. dollars) to avoid being detained.157
In a complaint to the local administration, a woman from the tekhnikum IDP residence stated that some IDPs had paid 1,000 rubles (approximately thirty-five U.S. dollars) to avoid detention of their relatives.158
Eyewitnesses, media reports, and a letter from the local head of administration alleged widespread looting and wanton destruction of civilian property in Sernovodsk. Soldiers threw grenades into basements or lofts, damaged or destroyed vegetable plots, stole cars, electronic equipment, jewelry, cash money, and foodstuffs from the homes of civilians.
Eighteen of the fifty-one written appeals to the local administration that Human Rights Watch reviewed made allegations of wanton destruction of civilian property. Villagers complained that soldiers threw grenades into their basements or on their lofts (seven complaints), purposefully damaged or destroyed the vegetable plots in their gardens (four complaints) and deliberately broke down doors (two complaints). A further eleven villagers stated that the soldiers had "turned everything over" but gave no details.
Twenty-three of the fifty-one appeals made allegations of pillage or looting. Villagers complained of the loss of video or other electronic equipment (eight complaints), foodstuffs (five complaints), jewelry (four complaints), and cash in rubles or dollars (four complaints). Two market traders complained that the soldiers had taken their merchandise. Three villagers said soldiers had taken their cars, and two that soldiers had taken their car documents but left the car. The head of the local administration also expressed concern about theft and plunder of cars in his letter to the prime minister of Chechnya. He wrote:
127 One exception was the arbitrary shooting of Apti Vagapov on October 23, 2000 during a sweep operation in Sernovodsk. See: Field Update on Chechnya, January 22, 2001.
128 Figure provided by the Danish Refugee Council
129 "Russian government to set up refugee camps in Chechnya," ITAR-TASS news agency, November 29, 1999, cited in BBC Worldwide Monitoring; "Russian minister lists places for safe return of Chechen refugees," ITAR-TASS news agency, December 8, 1999, cited in BBC Worldwide Monitoring.
130 Figure provided by the Danish Refugee Council
131 RIA Novosti news agency, July 1, 2001.
132 Human Rights Watch interview with Zeinap Khajieva, Kavkaz I, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
134 Human Rights Watch interview with Zeinap Khajieva, Kavkaz I, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
135 Letter from V.Kh. Arsamakov, head of administration of Sernovodsk, to S.V. Iliasov, prime minister of the Chechen Republic, dated July 4, 2001. On file at Human Rights Watch.
136 Human Rights Watch interview with Malika Sulimanova, Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 6, 2001.
137 Human Rights Watch interview with "Zeinap Yusupova" (not her real name), Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
138 Human Rights Watch interview with Zeinap Khajieva, Kavkaz I, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
139 See, for example, the letter from the head of administration of Sernovodsk to the prime minister of Chechnya.
140 According to figures of the Danish Refugee Council, the male population of Sernovodsk consists 4,338 people, including 1,216 male internally displaced persons.
141 Human Rights Watch interview with "Zura Zubaeva" (not her real name), Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 4, 2001; and Human Rights Watch interview with "Adam Baisaev" (not his real name), Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
Human Rights Watch was unable to establish exactly what happened at the mosque on July 3. According to one eyewitness, the soldiers had already left Sernovodsk by the time the men started gathering at the mosque as they had been told upon their release the previous day. Another source said the women raised such a storm at the mosque that morning that the soldiers decided to let the men go home. Human Rights Watch interview with Zeinap Khajieva, Kavkaz I, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001. Human Rights Watch interview with "Aslambek Azuev" (not his real name), Karabulak, Ingushetia, July 5, 2001.
143 Human Rights Watch interview with "Leila Larsanova" (not her real name), Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, July 4, 2001.
144 Human Rights Watch interview with Malika Sulimanova, Ingushetia, Sputnik IDP camp, July 6, 2001.
145 Human Rights Watch interview with Svetlana Takhashova, Ingushetia, Sleptsovsk, July 4, 2001.
146 The appeals did not refer to the treatment of seven detainees, and only one complaint indicated that the detainee was not ill-treated or tortured.
147 Human Rights Watch interview with "Bisultan and Muslim Barkhaev" (not the men's real names), Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, July 15, 2001.
148 Human Rights Watch interview with "Magomed Arsanukaev" (not his real name), Sputnik refugee camp, Ingushetia, July 7, 2001.
149 Human Rights Watch interview with "Aslambek Azuev" (not his real name), Karabulak, Ingushetia, July 5, 2001.
150 Human Rights Watch interviews with Tsalipat Isigova (Apti Isigov's mother), Nazran, Ingushetia, November 10, 2001 and with Rustam Isigov (Apti Isigov's cousin), Nazran, Ingushetia, November 11, 2001.
151 Human Rights Watch interview with Rustam Isigov, Nazran, Ingushetia, November 11, 2001.
152 Ibid; and Human Rights Watch interview with Taisa Isaeva, Nazran, Ingushetia, November 10, 2001.
153 Ibid; and Human Rights Watch interview with Jabrail Umkhanov, Moscow, November 15, 2001.
154 Human Rights Watch interview with Taisa Isaeva, Nazran, Ingushetia, November 10, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Tsalipat Isigova, Nazran, Ingushetia, November 10, 2001.
155 Human Rights Watch interview with Taisa Isaeva, Nazran, Ingushetia, November 10, 2001.
156 Human Rights Watch interview with "Zura Zubaeva" (not her real name), Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 4, 2001.
157 Human Rights Watch interview with "Adam Baisaev" (not his real name), Sputnik IDP camp, Ingushetia, July 3, 2001.
158 Complaint to the local administration from Musaeva A.V., dated July 6, 2001.
159 Letter from N.D. Terkhoev, head of the local administration of the village Assinovskaia, to President Vladimir Putin, head of the Chechen administration Akhmad Kadyrov and others, dated July 6, 2001. Human Rights Watch has a copy of this letter on file.