X. THE ASSINOVSKAIA SWEEP (JULY 3 AND 4, 2001)
Assinovskaia is a village in western Chechnya, approximately ten kilometers from the border with Ingushetia. It has a profile like Sernovodsk: Russian troops took Assinovskaia in November 1999, and the village was relatively peaceful thereafter for about eighteen months. In November 2001, Assinovskaia had a reported resident population of 4,874 people, but for almost two years has also served as the temporary home for thousands of displaced persons from other parts of Chechnya.160 Shortly after retaking the village, Russian government officials stated displaced Chechens could safely return to Assinovskaia and, in early December 1999, announced they would build facilities for displaced persons there.161 In late June 2001, 4,548 IDPs were living in Assinovskaia.162
The sweep operation in Assinovskaia was triggered by the July 1 explosion just outside Sernovodsk.163 It started at around 5:00 a.m., as helicopters circled over the village and as military vehicles moved to block all intersections. The head of the local administration described the start of the operation as follows:
Checking homes, the troops rounded up large numbers of men between sixteen and sixty years old. Accounts differ as to whether the troops were under blanket orders to arrest all the men and boys of fighting age. Several eyewitnesses reported that soldiers told them they had orders to detain all males between fifteen or sixteen and sixty. Troops detained an unprecedentedly high number of men on July 3-most locals estimated between 600 to 800 men altogether.165 Some villagers avoided being detained by paying bribes to the soldiers or hiding. Several witnesses also said soldiers had simply checked their papers and not detained them.
The detainees were taken out of the village to a partially destroyed building, possibly a farm, that Russian troops used as their base. Eyewitnesses said the building was located just across the bridge over the river Assa near the road to Bamut, about half a kilometer from the village. Many of the detainees said they were held there for the rest of the day, first forced to lie down in the scorching sun with their hands behind their backs; some said they were thrown in pits or taken into the building. Five former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated dozens of detainees had been beaten and tortured with electric shocks.
Looting and arbitrary destruction of civilian property also took place on a large scale. Soldiers stole or destroyed cars, took video and audio equipment, money, jewelry, and other personal belongings. In their rampage, the soldiers did not spare the local hospital or secondary school. They threw grenades into both buildings, looted safes in the school, and pilfered the medical supplies in the hospital.
Late in the evening, soldiers took the detainees in groups of ten to a field about one hundred meters from the partially destroyed building. One eyewitness estimated that, in total, the soldiers took about 200 men there. The soldiers released the detainees at the field but-for unclear reasons-told them to stay there until the sweep operation was over and promised to bring them water. According to eyewitnesses, however, many of the men decided not to wait in the field but walked about ten kilometers to the villages of Chemulga or Nesterovskaia in Ingushetia.
A group of twelve detainees was taken to the temporary police precinct in Achkhoi-Martan.166 The men were apparently all released during the night of July 3-4.
The sweep operation continued on July 4, with soldiers again detaining large numbers of men. As before, the detainees were taken to the temporary base outside the village-many hundreds of them, according to one eyewitness.167 Many of the detainees were forced to kneel for extended periods of time and were beaten or tortured with electric shocks. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, most detainees were released that same evening, apparently at the same field as the night before. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any detainees being transferred to Achkhoi-Martan on July 4.
Torture and Other Ill-Treatment
Human Rights Watch conducted detailed interviews with five men who had been detained during the sweep in Assinovskaia. Two had been beaten severely and subjected to electric shocks. Two others had been beaten but, in their own views, not badly. One former detainee said he had not been beaten at all. Four of the men were held at the temporary base outside Assinovskaia and released the same day they were detained. The fifth man was initially taken to the temporary base but then transported to Achkhoi-Martan; he was released early the next morning. All five stated that many of the men they were detained with were subjected to ill-treatment or torture.
According to these men's accounts, they had been forced to sit in awkward positions with T-shirts pulled over their eyes or to lie in the sun for hours on end at the temporary base outside Assinovskaia; hundreds of fellow detainees were also forced to do so this. Any movement or sound was punishable with hits or kicks. While such treatment may not amount to torture, it does constitute cruel or degrading treatment in violation of international law.168
Torture of "Salambek Sulumov"169
Russian soldiers came to the Salambek Sulumov home on Kalinina Street on the morning of July 3. Despite protests from Sulumov's father that his son's papers were in order, the soldiers took Sulumov and his fifteen-year-old brother to the temporary base and forced them to squat near the door. Sulumov estimated that there were hundreds of detainees in the building, many of whom were also forced to squat. He said soldiers beat him "a bit" in the kidney area but said his treatment was not too bad, comparatively. After about five hours, Sulumov and eleven others were selected for transfer to Achkhoi-Martan. His brother was also released that day.
Sulumov said he and other detainees were taken to a three- or four-story building in Achkhoi-Martan that he believed to have been the military commander's office. The soldiers took them up a flight of stairs and forced them to squat in the corridor and bend forward. Then, one by one the detainees were taken into an office, where, according to Sulumov, they were all tortured. Sulumov entered the office where there were three soldiers who began torturing him. He said:
The soldiers then gave him electric shocks to his ears. Sulumov said the soldiers put him in a big chair and cuffed his hands under the seat so he could not slide out. Wires were then attached to his ears with tape, and later also to his teeth and the handcuffs. When the electric current was released through the handcuffs, he said there were many sparks. Sulumov said he had burn marks from the sparks for a week after his release. He estimated that the soldiers tortured him with electric currents over the course of about one hour, apparently stopping only because he lost consciousness. He told Human Rights Watch that when he woke, he was in a big room that was being used as a cell, along with other people from Assinovskaia.
Later that day, Sulumov said, he was tortured again. The same men as before once again put him in the big chair and started beating him, demanding that he confess. Sulumov said he broke the chair as he was trying desperately to free his hands; after that, the soldiers started beating him with sticks. They then asked him if he had any bad teeth and threatened to file down a tooth using an iron file. Sulumov told Human Rights Watch, "I tried to move my face. I shook it left and right. I did not give them a chance. They almost put the file on my teeth but then they gave up and again put a wire on my ear."
A Human Rights Watch researcher who interviewed Sulumov eight days after his detention saw wounds on his wrists consistent with his having struggled against the handcuffs, two small burn marks on his left hand, and small wounds and bruises on his shins and back. He complained of pain in his elbow and ribs.
Sulumov said he and the other detainees were released from the Achkhoi-Martan detention facility at approximately 1:00 a.m. the next morning due to the efforts of the local head of administration. But at that hour the young men could not travel home due to the curfew. They stayed overnight at the Chechen police station. Sulumov was unable to leave even the next day as the soldiers had not returned his identity papers to him. He ended up remaining for three days.
The Ill-treatment of Ilies Iliasov170
On July 3 between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., soldiers came to Ilies Iliasov's home on Proletarskaia Street. Iliasov, an internally displaced person from Goiskoe, said the soldiers commanded everyone in the house to go outside and then conducted a search, after which they detained Iliasov without so much as looking at his passport. According to Iliasov, another group of soldiers had checked his documents a few hours earlier and found nothing wrong with them.
After picking up more people, troops in the APC holding Iliasov drove across the river Assa to the temporary base. Upon arrival, Iliasov said, he was beaten with sticks and forced to lie down on the ground with his hands behind his head; many other detainees were lying in the same position, and soldiers told the men that if they got up, they would be beaten. The soldiers later divided the detainees into younger and older groups. The older ones were taken into a building, the younger ones, including him, were thrown into the basement of the partially destroyed building. In the basement detainees were forced to squat; those who changed position were beaten.
He was released that same evening and fled to relatives in Nesterovskaia, a village across the border in Ingushetia.
The Torture of Khamzat Sadaev171
Soldiers came to Khamzat Sadaev's house on Krasnopartizanskaia Street on July 4 at around 10:30 a.m. The soldiers checked the basement and then saw Sadaev trying to hide in the courtyard; they asked for his documents and detained him. Sadaev said he and his brother were loaded into a Ural truck and driven across the bridge over the Assa to the temporary base, where soldiers forced Sadaev to stretch his shirt over his head and started kicking him. They forced him into one of many large holes outside the partially destroyed building. Sadaev said he and dozens of other detainees were forced to squat in the hole for hours on end. By this time, Sadaev had been separated from his brother.
Toward the end of the day-one group of detainees from the pit had already been released-the soldiers pulled Sadaev out of the hole, led him aside a bit, and gave him electric shocks. Sadaev described a small crank machine with two wires attached to it and a handle on the right hand side. He said the soldiers attached the wires to his fingers and the area of his kidneys. Sadaev unsuccessfully struggled to remove the wires; the soldiers beat him over the head and applied the current. Sadaev estimated that the torture session lasted for about fifteen minutes, during which he was given shocks ten to fifteen times. He said the current made him feel pain in his ligaments. When the current stopped, he said, "I felt like I awoke again." Sadaev said the soldiers wanted him to tell them where rebel fighters were hiding and where they could find their weapon depots.
Immediately after the shock treatment, the soldiers released Sadaev and approximately twenty other detainees. It was approximately 11:00 p.m. when the soldiers took them to the road and left them there. Sadaev said he walked straight home; his brother was also released that evening.
Sadaev fled to Ingushetia the following day.
The Ill-treatment of Adam Estamirov172
Soldiers came to Adam Estamirov's house at around 10:00 a.m. on July 3. Estamirov and his two cousins tried to hide to avoid being detained. But when the soldiers started checking the passports of the women in the courtyard and one of them cried out, Estamirov left his hiding place. "I saw lots of soldiers," he told Human Rights Watch. "I tried to explain that my documents were in [the refugee camp] Sputnik, but they didn't even look at our passports. They just said: `Come with us.'"
The soldiers loaded Estamirov into an empty truck and put his shirt over his head as a makeshift blindfold. Inside the truck, the soldiers started asking Estamirov "crazy questions" such as "Where is [rebel leader Ruslan] Gelaev?" The truck then drove across the bridge to the temporary base. At the destroyed building there, the soldiers forced Estamirov to kneel and kicked him in the back. Then they forced him into a pit with two other men, and he was kept there for about one hour, during which soldiers bullied him a few more times asking him whether he was a "Wahabbi" and kicking him when he said he was not. 173
Then, he said, "They took me into a room... There were about fifty guys there. They examined my body and found scars-I have scars from an operation. They were very rude to me." However, Estamirov said the soldiers for the most part left him alone for the five or six hours he was to spend in the building. Toward the end of the day, the soldiers examined his body again, asked him more of the same questions and looked at his papers. Estamirov told Human Rights Watch he considered himself lucky as he was treated better than many of the other detainees.
Late in the evening, as it was getting dark, the soldiers took Estamirov and about two hundred other detainees to the field about one hundred meters from the temporary base and told them to wait there until the sweep was over. Estamirov and some others decided to walk to Chemulgi in Ingushetia. They arrived there late at night and local villagers provided them shelter.
The Ill-treatment of Vakha Davletukaev
Soldiers detained "Vakha Davletukaev" on July 4. He told Human Rights Watch that soldiers had already come to his home three times before, each time checking his documents, and had behaved properly.174 When the soldiers came for the fourth time and told him they would detain him, Davletukaev protested that he had been checked several times and that his papers were in order. The soldiers apparently told him: "They check, we detain."
The soldiers took Davletukaev to the temporary base, into the partially destroyed building. He said they forced him to kneel, pulled his shirt over his head as a makeshift blindfold, and told him to keep his hands on his head. He was forced to sit in that position until the evening and was not allowed to get up. Davletukaev said he was not beaten himself but heard the cries of other detainees from the adjacent rooms.
The building was made up of several different rooms. He estimated that there were between fifty and sixty detainees in his room, and more in the other rooms. He said he could see the legs of some detainees in one of the other rooms through a narrow crack in his shirt. There were apparently also women among them who, he said, were wearing slippers.
The soldiers released Davletukaev after 8:30 p.m. in a group of around thirty people. He said the soldiers took them to the road and left them there. Other similar-sized groups were also taken to the road. The soldiers warned the men-by Davletukaev's estimate a total of about 120 people-to get away from the village quickly and told them they would regret it if the soldiers found them in Assinovskaia the next day. Davletukaev said the men started to walk in the direction of Ingushetia. An APC drove alongside them up to the intersection of the roads to Bamut and Chemulgi. From that intersection, most-by his estimate between seventy and seventy-five people-continued to Chemulgi in Ingushetia, others went to Nesterovskaia (also in Ingushetia) or Sernovodsk.
Several eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers engaged in extortion during identity checks. Some soldiers apparently demanded money-usually around 500 rubles-from villagers in exchange for not detaining them or their relatives. In at least one case, a second group of soldiers detained two men for whom a bribe had been paid during an earlier check. According to the local head of administration, there were more such incidents involving extortion of protection money.175 Human Rights Watch had not previously received reports of such "preventative bribes."
· Thirty-two-year-old Israil Khamzatov told Human Rights Watch that soldiers came to his courtyard on July 4. When he showed them his documents, the soldiers wanted to detain him. He told them they should not detain him because he was the only adult in a house with six children. He said: "When I told them about the six children they said it is not their problem, they only care about money... I made a deal with them... I gave them 500 rubles."176
· Forty-one-year-old Lipkhan Gisaeva told Human Rights Watch of two similar incidents.177 On July 3, soldiers came to Gisaeva's house on Krasnopartizanskaia Street and wanted to detain her sister's son. The sister paid them 500 rubles. On July 4, the soldiers came to the house again and, this time, wanted to detain Gisaeva's son. She told Human Rights Watch she offered the soldiers a cow if they would leave her son alone. The soldiers then demanded 5,000 rubles in cash. In response to protests that she did not have such money, they told her to sell the cow. When Gisaeva was unable to produce the money, the soldiers detained her son.
· In a complaint to the head of the local administration, Kh. Khonukoeva, a woman from Assinovskaia, stated that she paid soldiers 1,000 rubles to avoid the detention of her two sons:
Later that day, another group of soldiers came to the house and detained the sons.
Several eyewitnesses, media reports, and a letter from the local head of administration alleged widespread looting and wanton destruction of civilian property by the soldiers. The soldiers went on a rampage of plunder and destruction in a local secondary school and in the local hospital. They threw grenades into basements, destroyed vegetable plots, and took valuables, such as VCRs, jewelry and money, and foodstuffs from the homes of civilians. The head of administration estimated that soldiers stole as many as ten motor vehicles belonging to civilians.
In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nazarbek Terkhoev, the head of administration of Assinovskaia, complained that:
From his own house, Terkhoev wrote, soldiers had taken an electrical generator and a car stereo.
Resident Ilies Iliasov told Human Rights Watch that soldiers came to check and search his neighbor's house on Proletarskaia Street on July 4 and took away some of the owner's chickens, as well as detaining the neighbor himself.180 Libkhan Gisaeva told Human Rights Watch soldiers took two carpets and new luxury dishes from her house on Krasnopartizanskaia Street during one of the three visits they paid to her house on July 3 and 4. She said they also took a lot of her chickens.181
On the morning of July 3, the soldiers came to the town's secondary school No. 1. Medina Gudieva, the school director, described the actions of the soldiers in a letter to the village administration:
Gudieva said she tried to speak to the soldiers but was rudely turned back. She wrote: "I immediately wanted to meet with the soldiers that were on Bakina Street, but they threatened me in all sorts of ways and would not let me through using offensive, uncensored language, even though I introduced myself as the director of the school." She said the soldiers told her they were carrying out orders.
As a result of the rampage, Gudieva wrote, students were worried that they would not be able to continue their education because they do not have diplomas. Nazarbek Terkhoev estimated that forty-eight students were left without their diplomas.
Several Russian and international media also reported on the wrecking of the school. 183 Russian TV6 showed footage of the wrecked school on July 10, 2001, including a classroom where teachers had found an undetonated mine.184
Soldiers also went on a rampage in the hospital. According to eyewitnesses, soldiers wrecked hospital wards, smashed windows, and stole medical supplies. On July 10, Russian TV6 showed footage of the wrecked hospital, including a damaged hospital ward.185 The head of the Assinovskaia administration wrote:
160 Figures provided by the Danish Refugee Council.
161 "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.
162 Figures provided by the Danish Refugee Council.
163 RIA Novosti news agency, July 1, 2001.
164 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.
165 According to figures of the Danish Refugee Council, the male population of Assinovskaia consists of 4,308 people, including 2,117 male internally displaced people.
166 Human Rights Watch interview with "Salambek Sulumov" (not his real name), July 11, 2001, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia.
167 Human Rights Watch interview with Khamzat Sadaev, July 11, 2001, Nesterovskaia, Ingushetia.
168 In its case law, the European Court of Human Rights has established a strict threshold for the legitimate use of physical force against detainees. In the case of Ribitsch v. Austria, the Court ruled that: "In respect of a person deprived of his liberty, any recourse to physical force which has not been made strictly necessary by his own conduct diminishes human dignity and is in principle an infringement of the right set forth in Article 3." (Ribitsch v. Austria judgment, December 4, 1995, para. 38.) In the case of Ireland v. UK, the Court held that forcing detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a "stress position" (in this case, the detainees were forced to stand spread-eagled against the wall with the fingers put high above the head against the wall, legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of their body mainly on the fingers) constitutes ill-treatment contrary to Article 3. (Ireland v. UK judgment, 1978, para. 96.)
169 Human Rights Watch interview with Salambek Sulomov, July 11, 2001, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section comes from Salambek Sulumov.
170 Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section comes from Ilies Iliasov, Human Rights Watch interview, July 10, 2001, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia.
171 Human Rights Watch interview with Khamzat Sadaev, Nesterovskaia, Ingushetia, July 11, 2001. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section comes from Sadaev.
172 Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section comes from Adam Estamirov, Human Rights Watch interview July 8, 2001, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia.
173 Russians use the term "Wahabbi" as a derogatory term for Islamic "fundamentalists."
174 Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this section comes from "Vakha Davletukaev," Human Rights Watch interview, July 7, 2001, Sputnik refugee camp.
175 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.
176 Human Rights Watch interview with Israil Hamzatov, Nesterovskaia, Ingushetia, July 11, 2001.
177 Human Rights Watch interview with Lipkhan Gisaeva, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, July 10, 2001.
178 Letter to Kh. Vitaev, head of administration of the Sunzha province, from Kh. Khonukoeva, dated July 7, 2001. On file at Human Rights Watch.
179 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.
180 Human Rights Watch interview with Ilies Iliasov, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, July 10, 2001.
181 Human Rights Watch interview with Lipkhan Gisaeva, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, July 10, 2001.
182 Letter from Medina Gudieva, director of school no. 1 in Assinovskaia, to Nazarbek Terkhoev, the local head of the local administration, dated July 6, 2001.
183 See also: Patrick Tyler, "Russian Troops Terrorize 2 Villages After Chechen Mines Kill 4," New York Times, July 11, 2001; Jonathan Steele in Guardian, July 18, 2001.
184 TV6, Moscow, in Russian at 7:00 p.m., July 10, 2001, cited in BBC Monitoring Service, July 11, 2001.
186 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.