Background Briefing

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Background: The Current Situation in Chechnya

While active combat in most areas of Chechnya clearly subsided several years ago, the civilian population has experienced little relief. Witnesses repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the current situation is “worse than a war,” referring to the atmosphere of arbitrariness, intimidation, and vulnerability to the ongoing abuses that prevail in the republic.

In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the situation during the daytime appears relatively stable and quiet, with few sounds of gunshots or skirmishes. As night approaches, however, a self-imposed curfew goes into effect. Grozny freezes, as few people dare to leave their houses; they particularly avoid the numerous checkpoints on the roads leading in and out of Grozny. The city’s relative calm merely masks what many have termed Chechnya’s “dirty war,” in which abuses, including numerous arbitrary detentions that often result in “disappearances,” continue to occur in a climate of lawlessness and impunity. With the city in ruins and virtually no signs of reconstruction, most people in the city center live in the partial ruins of apartment buildings damaged by relentless bombing campaigns. There is no running water and power outages are frequent.

In southern Chechnya, active conflict continues. In Vedeno, Nozhai-Yurt, and other districts in the south, ambushes and clashes between rebel forces and federal or pro-Moscow Chechen troops are a daily occurrence. A typical example of open combat in the region was a large-scale operation launched in February 2005, when forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov pursued a group allegedly consisting of sixty rebels through the mountainous region of southern Chechnya, with both sides incurring significant losses.5

In areas under the effective control of the Ramzan Kadyrov, the fear-stricken atmosphere is astounding. People who have survived the chaos of two wars and actively protested the abuses perpetrated in their villages are now too terrified to open the door even to their neighbors, let alone to complain. In some cases, people choose not to report the “disappearances” of their relatives to the authorities, hoping that their silence might protect their remaining family members. One of the witnesses, a woman who chose not to file a formal complaint about the recent “disappearance” of her son, told Human Rights Watch:

I searched [for him] everywhere, but did not write a petition [to the prosecutor]… Here, many who write petitions [themselves] “disappear”… I was afraid... I have two other sons at home. If I were to tell someone, [they] might take them away as well.6

People are also increasingly reluctant to talk to human rights workers or journalists, fearing further persecution. For example, a representative of the Memorial Human Rights Center told Human Rights Watch that about a year ago, when she visited Kurchaloi district—an area in eastern Chechnya largely controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces—she was surprised to find that witnesses and victims of abuses there were scared to talk to her and that they took extreme precautions, such as concealing their identities and not sharing the details of their cases. The representative, who has visited Chechnya regularly throughout the past four years, added that during her recent visit to Chechnya she found that this tendency “has spread to the entire republic.”7

The relatives of thirteen victims of “disappearances” who spoke to Human Rights Watch insisted that we not publicize or otherwise use the information about their cases in any way. This is unprecedented in Human Rights Watch’s four years of research on enforced disappearances. In almost all cases where the “disappeared” person was subsequently released or the relatives found his body, the families either refused to be interviewed or asked not to disclose the names of the victim and his relatives, their place of residence, or any other details that may allow the authorities to identify the witnesses.

[5] “Vehement Fights Continue in Mountainous Chechnya: Conflicting Reports on Losses,”, February 26, 2005 [online], (retrieved February 27, 2005).

[6] Human Rights Watch interview, a village in the Shali district of Chechnya, February 3, 2005. The names of the victim and witnesses as well as the exact location of the interview are withheld to protect the safety of witnesses.

[7] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a representative of the Memorial Human Rights Center, March 9, 2005.

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