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Chechnya: Renewed Catastrophe

"Russia hasn't delivered on its promises to the Council of Europe, particularly on accountability. There is simply no reason to reward Moscow, and restoring voting rights would do just that."

Holly Cartner, executive director Europe and Central Asia division Human Rights Watch  More...

Field Update on Chechnya
January 22, 2001

With major military clashes between Russian and Chechen forces ending in spring 2000, civilian lives in Chechnya are blighted by Russian forces who detain, torture, extort, and harass them on a daily basis; and by Chechen rebels who target civilians who cooperate with the Russian administration, and who bomb Russian positions in densely populated areas. Even though civilians are far less frequently the victims of indiscriminate bombing and shelling than they were in the early months of the war, (1) they still face the daily risk of torture, "disappearance," and summary execution.

Russian forces now control all districts of Chechnya, except for parts of the mountainous south, where it continues to bomb and launch artillery strikes on Chechen positions. Chechen rebels mount frequent ambushes on Russian government troops in Russian-controlled areas, kill soldiers at checkpoints, attack police stations and Russian military positions, and target for murder Chechens working with the Russian administration.

Human Rights Watch has documented violations of human rights and humanitarian law regarding Chechnya in four reports. (2) The most recent of these, Welcome to Hell: Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Extortion in Chechnya, detailed the cycle of arbitrary detention, torture, and extortion perpetrated by Russian forces from January through April 2000 against Chechens suspected of rebel collaboration. Two Human Rights Watch researchers returned to the region (3) in November and early December 2000 to investigate Russian government claims that civilians are returning to a "normal life," and that allegations of widespread human rights violations by Russian forces documented in Welcome to Hell are "outdated." (4)

On the basis of almost one hundred new interviews with victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch found that violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have not lessened; they have become routine. Civilians continue to live in a stranglehold of fear.

Russian soldiers and police on sweep operations arbitrarily detain men and women, particularly young Chechen men ranging in age from fifteen to forty-five, and loot homes. Detainees are frequently taken to makeshift detention facilities such as earthen pits, where they are routinely tortured and denied all due process rights. Many detainees have "disappeared" without a trace. Groups of masked men, often speaking unaccented Russian, burst into homes of civilians at night and take away or kill their inhabitants. Chechen rebels have threatened and killed civilian administrators and are presumably responsible for the bombing of Russian positions that have killed and wounded numerous civilians.

All of the abuses described in this brief research summary took place from July to November 2000, a time the Russian government has characterized as a "period of normalization" of the situation in Chechnya. The pattern of abuses described confirms the work of other human rights and humanitarian organizations active in Chechnya, including the Memorial Human Rights Center, a prominent Russian nongovernmental organization.

Sweep Operations: Arbitrary Detention and Pillage

Russian forces conduct sweeps of towns and villages ostensibly to seize illegal weapons and ferret out those suspected of rebel collaboration. In many Chechen villages, sweeps may occur anywhere from every week to every few days. During a sweep, soldiers typically surround a village, district, or street and conduct systematic house-to house searches. Russian forces on sweep operations have arbitrarily detained large numbers of people, primarily young men, for indefinite periods, often holding them in pits or other makeshift facilities. They have also systematically stripped homes of valuables.

The most frequently cited grounds for detention of Chechens is the need to check the identity of the detainee or his or her lack of a residence permit for the town or village where the sweep operation is taking place. (5) Periods of detention may last from a day or two to weeks or months. Russian forces have detained Chechens on other, wholly arbitrary grounds as well; following are several examples:

  • "Sulumbek P." was detained on August 23, 2000, in Alkhan Kala. Soldiers were reportedly in search of his brother, but when they learned he was not home, they took Sulumbek P. They gave no other reason for his detention. (6)
  • "Kheda L." was detained in a town in eastern Chechnya in September 2000 when soldiers found a picture in her house of her in traditional dress standing next to a man with a beard. (7)
  • "Ali A." was detained on September 1 or 2, 2000, in the Chernoreche district of Grozny when soldiers allegedly found bullets in his home during a sweep operation. According to "Ali A.," the soldiers planted the bullets themselves under his couch. (8)

Several young Chechen men told Human Rights Watch that they had destroyed photographs of themselves with beards or in military garb to avoid detention.

In the vast majority of cases Human Rights Watch documented, officials at police stations or military command posts did not formally register the detentions. Detainees are often held in unofficial detention centers, have no access to lawyers, and are not formally charged; while they interrogate detainees, it is not clear whether police and other Russian forces carry out further further investigatory measures, such as summoning witnesses or gathering material evidence. In the three cases cited above, the detained individuals were kept in makeshift detention areas:

  • "Sulumbek P." told Human Rights Watch that he was kept in a pit near Tangi-Chu for five weeks, during which he was interrogated and tortured. Relatives bribed soldiers for his release. (9)
  • According to a doctor who knows her, "Kheda L." was first kept at a local police station and then taken to the Khankala military base, where she was tied to a pole in the ground. She was ill-treated for several days and eventually dumped half conscious by the side of a road. (10)
  • "Ali A." told Human Rights Watch that he was held for three days in an oil tank and tortured, together with dozens of other men from Chernoreche district. (11)

Numerous Chechen civilians told Human Rights Watch that their houses had been stripped of their valuables by soldiers and police officers during sweep operations. In fact, these operations were so frequently the occasion of systematic pillage that many Chechens believe they are carried out not to seek out rebel fighters and their weapons or ammunition depots but for the personal enrichment of the troops.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, Russian soldiers on a sweep operation in Sernovodsk on October 23, 2000, fired on twenty-two-year-old Apti Vagapov when he ran out of the courtyard of his house. Vagapov's father, who witnessed the incident, told Human Rights Watch that a soldier shot Vagapov through the head, without uttering a warning or firing warning shots. After two months of lying in a coma, he died in an Ingush hospital. (12)

Torture and Ill-treatment

Twelve persons provided Human Rights Watch detailed testimony of torture they suffered, through November 2000, while being detained by Russian security forces. Several medical professionals told Human Rights Watch that they frequently treat persons who are victims of torture, suggesting that the practice is widespread and ongoing. A doctor from a mid-sized village in Chechnya, for example, told Human Rights Watch that for months he has examined new torture victims every week. (13)

All former detainees, without exception, told Human Rights Watch that they had been beaten and kicked while being held by Russian security forces. Many said they were tied up, or suspended by their hands above the ground, and beaten and kicked on the arms, legs, head, and kidneys. Several former detainees said they had been beaten on the genitals.

  • "Adlan A." was detained in July 2000 and held at a police station in Achkhoi-Martan for three days. He told Human Rights Watch that police officers tried to make him confess to the murder of several women. They beat and kicked him in the back, kidneys, and genitals, and slammed his head into a wall. He refused to confess, and was released after two days. (14)
  • "Aslambek S." was detained in October 2000 and held in a pit for four days. He said that soldiers repeatedly threatened to execute him. He was beaten and kicked on each of the four days. One day, he was put on a chair and asked whether he was married. When he said "no," the soldiers beat him in the genitals saying "then you don't need these." (15)

A number of former detainees also reported being tortured by electric shock.

  • "Vakha T." was detained on October 19, 2000 in Chernoreche and held for five days at the commandant's office in a certain district of Grozny. According to his brother, he reported being subjected to electroshock every day with wires attached to his ears or to the handcuffs on his wrists, which released a current through his body. (16)
  • Soldiers threw cold water over "Sulumbek P." before attaching electric wires to various parts of his body, including his genitals. He said he was also frequently beaten and told he would be executed. "Sulumbek P." lost much of his sight in his left eye as a result of a blow with a rifle butt. Human Rights Watch researchers saw his left eye, which appeared to have been knocked out. (17)


Most former detainees told Human Rights Watch that Russian forces had extorted payment from their relatives in exchange for their release; sums ranged from several thousand roubles to thousands of dollars, and would include demands for weapons and ammunition. (18) According to relatives of former detainees, Russian forces set specific sums and deadlines for paying. Extorted sums were paid either directly to soldiers or police officers holding the detainee, or through middlemen. (19) "Sulumbek P."'s brother, for example, told Human Rights Watch that he located Sulumbek P. through Chechen middlemen five days after he was detained on August 23, 2000. The following four weeks, he and other relatives collected money for the $1,000 ransom and were compelled to purchase ten automatic weapons indirectly from an intermediary and then hand them over to Russian forces. (20)

Some Chechens have great difficulty amassing the required sum. In one recent example, a duty officer at the military commandant's office at the Khankala military base told the mother of a nineteen-year-old detainee that he would be released if she delivered U.S.$1,000 and two automatic weapons to the base before December 9, 2000. Russian forces had detained her son on November 26, 2000 at a checkpoint when he was traveling to Grozny to extend his identification card. On December 2, the woman, the mother of ten children, was permitted to speak to her son for a few minutes at the military commandant's office in Assinovskaia. She said his face was swollen and bloody on the left side. According to the woman, her son said he had been beaten and told her: "Mama, mama, sell everything, get me out of here." When Human Rights Watch interviewed the mother on December 6, she was trying to collect the money. (21)


Many Chechen men "disappear" after being taken into Russian custody. Witnesses claim to have seen Russian forces take the individuals into custody, after which all trace of them is lost. In almost all such cases, family members who actively seek information from Russian military, police, and procuracy officials are informed that the person was not on any list of detainees and had never been detained. (22)

For example, in mid-October 2000, forty-nine-year-old Abdulkasim Zaurbekov went with his son to a local police station in Grozny to receive payment for repairs he had done to police cars. Zaurbekov entered, leaving his son outside to wait for him, but never returned. According to Zaurbekov's wife, the duty officer's log book shows that her husband entered the precinct but not that he exited it. When Zaurbekov's wife and son started making inquiries, police officials denied that they ever detained him. Zaurbekov has not been seen since. (23)

In the last four months, several dozen corpses of the "disappeared" have been found in unmarked graves. According to doctors who have examined these bodies, most bore signs of severe torture. For example, in early September 2000, Russian forces took Edilbek Isaev from the Starye Atagi hospital, where he was being treated for gunshot and shrapnel wounds. One week later, his corpse was found, together with three others, in an unmarked grave just outside Starye Atagi. According to doctors, Isaev had been scalped, two of his ribs had been cut out of his body and several of his finger tips had been cut off. (24) The corpses of more than a dozen other men last seen being taken into custody were found in unmarked graves in other locations near Starye Atagi, and also in such villages as Dzhalka, Gekhi, Dubai-Yurt, and Mesker-Yurt. (25)

Unidentified Attackers

Many interviewees told Human Rights Watch of the intense fear generated by a new pattern of nighttime raids on homes by armed men in masks believed to be Russian security personnel, although in plain clothes. The raiders did not appear to be motivated by financial gain. Human Rights Watch documented three such cases that took place between September and November 2000.

In one case, masked men speaking unaccented Russian hauled off two young men from their home in Grozny; in another, they took a young man from his home in Gekhi. (26) The relatives of all three have conducted active searches but have learned nothing about their fate; Russian officials claim they never detained the men. In the Gekhi case, however, neighbors stated they saw two armed personnel carriers (APCs) outside the home at the time of the attack. In yet a third case, masked men speaking Chechen burst into a home and opened fire on several people present. One of the men, a journalist who had videotaped controversial material, died as a result of his wounds; another lost a leg. The attack happened in a part of Chechnya that had been under Russian control for months. (27)

Random Shootouts and Indiscriminate Fire

Chechen civilians fear wanton criminal violence by Russian forces as much as they fear the arrest and torture of their loved ones. Random violence and shootouts, often by drunken soldiers, have become part and parcel of life in Chechnya. Two examples follow.

On November 19, 2000, three young men were selling petrol close to a market in Grozny when a group of Russian soldiers passed by. According to one of the three, "Chengiz Q.," one of the soldiers, unprovoked, threw a grenade toward them. (28) The soldiers then started kicking and beating them with their boots and rifle butts. They loaded the men into their vehicle and sat on top of them, saying "They're vermin! All three should be killed." Later, the soldiers' superior happened to encounter the group and ordered the young men released. Human Rights Watch researchers saw the bruises on the body of "Chengiz Q." Another man received five stitches on his neck at a Grozny hospital.

In another incident, on November 25, 2000, soldiers sitting atop an armored personnel carrier shot at a group of women and children riding in a taxi on the road to Gudermes, in eastern Chechnya. The women told Human Rights Watch that after the APC passed their car the soldiers suddenly opened fire. Two women and a six-year-old girl were wounded by bullets but survived. The soldiers made no attempt to stop the taxi.

Chechen Violations

After their withdrawal from Chechnya's lowlands into the mountains, Chechen rebel fighters reverted to guerrilla warfare tactics, failing to differentiate between civilians and combatants. As a result, civilians have died or sustained injuries.

According to press reports, rebel groups have claimed responsibility for killing several civilian administrators who were associated with the Russian government. For example, Interfax, a Moscow-based agency, reported the murder of October 24 murder of Lecha Avturkoyev, head of the Kurchaloi district administration; the November 16 murder of Sharan Batagov, head of the administration of Mesker-Yurt village; and the January 4 murder of Saypudi Aksaktemirov, a city administration official in Argun. (29) Itar-Tass agency reported the November 9 murder of Yusa Tsuyev, head of the Alkhan-Kala administration. (30) As civilian administrators are noncombatants under the Geneva Conventions, direct attacks on them are violations of international humanitarian law.

In recent months, several bomb attacks near Russian military or police positions have led to loss of life and injury not only among Russian forces but also among civilians. These attacks affected both combatants and noncombatants and may have constituted violations of international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch asked officials in Moscow and Chechnya in writing for assistance in identifying and locating survivors of or witnesses to such incidents, in particular regarding civilian administrators who had been attacked or threatened because of their association with the Russian government. No assistance was forthcoming.

1. For example, during its recent research trip, Human Rights Watch documented an incident in Dishne-Vedeno in late November 2000 in which a school was hit by heavy artillery, killing a twenty-nine-year-old woman, and wounding several children.

2. Human Rights Watch/Europe and Central Asia, Welcome to Hell: Arbitrary detention, torture and extortion in Chechnya (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2000). Human Rights Watch/Europe and Central Asia, "February 5: A Day of Slaughter in Novye Aldi,"A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 9, June 2000. Human Rights Watch/Europe and Central Asia, "No Happiness Remains: Civilian Killings, Pillage, and Rape in Alkhan-Yurt, Chechnya," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 5, April 2000. Human Rights Watch/Europe and Central Asia, "Civilian Killings in Staropromyslovski District of Grozny," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 2, February 2000.

3. Despite numerous requests to the Russian authorities, Human Rights Watch has to this day not been granted access to Chechnya. As a result, all our interviews with victims of violations from Chechnya are conducted in Ingushetia.

4. "Human rights report on Chechnya out of date, biased--Russian official," Interfax news agency, October 26, 2000. Vladimir Kalamanov, Russian presidential human rights envoy to Chechnya, called the report a "a crisis of genre" that contains no more than the "repetition of information made public as long as eight or nine months ago."

5. The obligatory residence permit is called a propiska in Russian; it appears as a stamp in an individual's internal passport. Under a 1998 law anti-terrorism law, Russian forces are allowed to detain people to "establish their identity" for an unlimited period of time. This law is applicable throughout the Russian Federation, including in Chechnya.

6. Human Rights Watch interview with "Sulumbek P.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000. Not this man's true name. Unless otherwise noted, all names in this memorandum that appear in quotations have been changed to protect the security of the witness.

7. Human Rights Watch interview with a medical doctor, "Ibragim I.," Ingushetia, November 12, 2000. A beard may denote Islamic piety, which Russian forces commonly ascribe to Chechen rebel affiliation.

8. Human Rights Watch interview with "Ali A.," Sputnik, Ingushetia, November 26, 2000.

9. Human Rights Watch interview with "Sulumbek P.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000.

10. Human Rights Watch interview with "Ibragim I.," Nazran, Ingushetia, November 12, 2000.

11. Human Rights Watch interview with "Ali A.," Sputnik, Ingushetia, November 26, 2000.

12. Human Rights Watch interview with Apti Vagapov's father, Nazran, Ingushetia.

13. Human Rights Watch interview with doctor "Umar Taimeskhanov," Nazran, Ingushetia, November 14, 2000. Human Rights Watch is withholding the name of the village in order to protect the doctor's security.

14. Human Rights Watch interview with "Adlan A.," Nazran, Ingushetia, November 27, 2000.

15. Human Rights Watch interview with "Aslambek S.," Nazran, Ingushetia, November 26, 2000.

16. Human Rights Watch interview with "Vakha T.'s" brother "Khamzad T.," Karabulak, Ingushetia, November 30, 2000. Human Rights Watch does not disclose the district of Grozny where "Vakha T." was held in order to protect his security.

17. Human Rights Watch interview with "Sulumbek P.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000.

18. The current exchange rate is approximately twenty-eight rubles to one U.S. dollar.

19. For a detailed discussion of this process and the role of intermediaries, see Welcome to Hell, pp. 77-81.

20. Human Rights Watch interview with "Sulumbek P.'s" brother, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000; and interview with "Sulumbek P.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000.

21. Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 6, 2000.

22. By early October 2000, Vladimir Kalamanov, the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Human Rights in the Chechen Republic, had compiled a list of about 450 names of individuals who "disappeared" under a variety of circumstances.

23. Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa Usupova, Abdulkasim Zaurbekov's wife, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 6, 2000.

24. Human Rights Watch interview with "Ibragim I.," Nazran, Ingushetia, November 12, 2000.

25. This information was provided to Human Rights Watch by the relatives of those persons whose corpses were found.

26. Human Rights Watch interview with "Magomed Akaev" and his wife, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 7, 2000; Human Rights Watch interview with Bashkhan Gairbekov, Nazran, Ingushetia, December 5, 2000.

27. Human Rights Watch interview with "Vakha T.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 1, 2000.

28. Human Rights Watch interview with "Chengiz Q.," Nazran, Ingushetia, December 6, 2000.

29. "Chechen District Administrator Killed," Interfax Moscow, October 25, 2000; "Chechen Village Leaders' Murder Said Possible Part of Rebel Fear Campaign," Interfax Moscow, November 17, 2000; "Elder Murdered in Argun; Three Policemen Said Killed in Chechnya," Interfax Moscow, January 5, 2001.

30. "Chechnya's Alkhan-Kala Administration Head Gunned Down," Itar-Tass Moscow, November 9, 2000.