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For me, every second feels like a whole year

-Zulai Azieva, mother of "disappeared" Lom-Ali and Umar-Ali.1

[One official] said that the children were at Khankala, that they had drugs on them. I don't care if they had taken them with an atomic bomb, but WHERE ARE THEY?

-Rashan Alieva, mother of "disappeared" Islam Dombaev.2

I want to know where my son is detained and why. . . . I don't even know where he is and how he is. It's winter, my child went out in a t-shirt and barefoot.

-Rashan Alieva, mother of "disappeared" Islam Dombaev.3

A human being is not a match, or a cow or a sheep that one can simply let vanish.

-relative of "disappeared" Adlan Eldarov who requested to remain anonymous.4


The "disappearances" of detainees in the custody of Russian federal forces in Chechnya is a major human rights crisis that the Russian government and the international community must address. The discovery of the mutilated corpses of some of the "disappeared" has substantiated fears that they have been tortured and summarily executed. While combat between federal forces and Chechen rebels has for the most part ceased, the "disappearance," torture, and summary execution of detainees continues, marking the transition from a classical internal armed conflict into a classical "dirty war," where human rights violations and not the conquest or defense of territory are the hallmarks. Because criminal investigations into "disappearances" have been shoddy and ineffective, impunity for such atrocities continues.

Human Rights Watch has documented more than 113 cases of "disappearances" in Chechnya since the military operation began there in September 1999.5 A leading Russian nongovernmental organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, has documented approximately 150 such cases. The true figures, however, are believed to be much higher. The first such case dates back to December 1999. The most recent happened in February 2001. The risk of "disappearances" affects everyone in Chechnya. Victims are predominately male and range from fifteen years of age to forty-nine; among them have been dentists, drivers, and auto mechanics.

In all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, witness testimony confirms undisputedly that federal agents-from the military, police, or security forces-took the individuals into custody, either during "sweep" operations, at checkpoints, or during targeted search and seizure operations. After the initial detention, however, all trace of them was lost. In many cases, officials deny that the individual was detained; in others, they acknowledge the initial detention, but then claim the individual was transferred, released, or otherwise no longer their responsibility. The wall of denial and the obfuscating, contradictory information provided by officials compounds the anguish and frustration experienced by relatives searching desperately for their "disappeared" loved ones. This has led one such family member to reflect in exasperation, "[They tell me] `our people didn't take him,' `the FSB didn't take him,' `the GRU didn't take him,' `the MVD didn't take him.' You get the impression that extra-terrestrials seized my son."6

Perhaps the most pitiful picture today in Chechnya is that of relatives rushing to newly reported mass grave sites to search for the remains of the "disappeared." Indeed, the corpses of many of the "disappeared" have subsequently been found in unmarked, makeshift graves and body dumps throughout Chechnya. The discovery of a cluster of graves containing about sixty corpses near the federal military base at Khankala generated intense media attention. While it contained an unprecedented number of corpses, it was not the first such burial site to be found in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch has documented at least eight makeshift graves containing mutilated bodies of individuals that bore unmistakable marks of torture. In another eight cases, the dead bodies were dumped by the side of a road, on hospital grounds or elsewhere. In one case of base corruption, a military serviceman insisted that the parents of two "disappeared" brothers pay him to sketch a map to their makeshift burial site. He apparently promised them, "If they're not yours, I'll give you back your money."

The Obligation to Investigate

"Disappearances" happen when government forces take people into custody, hold them in secret, and then refuse to acknowledge responsibility for their whereabouts or fate.7 It is a phenomenon that has ravaged other parts of the world, notably Latin America. Following the emergence worldwide of patterns of "disappearances," the international community, and particularly the United Nations, responded by compelling states to take action to prevent and investigate "disappearances," and by creating mechanisms dedicated to this end. In 1980, in response to a request by the U.N. General Assembly to consider the issue of involuntary disappearances, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights created the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.8 The working group's mandate is to "assist the relatives of disappeared persons ascertain the fate and whereabouts of their missing family members."9 It requests governments to investigate cases it has identified as warranting concern.

In 1992, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances,10 which recognizes the practice of "disappearances" as a violation of the rights to due process, to liberty and security of person, and freedom from torture. It characterizes the systematic practice of enforced disappearances as being "of the nature of a crime against humanity."11

The declaration exhorts states to prevent "disappearances" by upholding habeas corpus and other due process rights, ensuring access to all detention facilities, and maintaining a central registry of all detainees. Because an essential feature of "disappearances" is the official obstruction of effective investigations, the declaration calls on states to diligently investigate "disappearances," and hold their perpetrators accountable. The Russian authorities have not fulfilled this obligation. They have not committed the necessary resources to investigations, nor are they empowering the relevant agencies to conduct them. Indeed, to our knowledge, none of the thirty-four criminal investigations into "disappearances"-which include most of the cases documented in this report-has resulted in the discovery of the whereabouts of the "disappeared" or in an indictment of the perpetrator.

Searches by Relatives

"Disappearances" in Chechnya are prolonged tragedies for the victims' relatives. Desperate for information on the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, relatives of the "disappeared" in Chechnya muster resources and courage to mount their searches. The families interviewed for this report generally leave no stone unturned. They write or visit every conceivable government agency or official at all levels that they believe could possibly have any information on the whereabouts of their loved ones, or influence their fate: the police, the civilian and military procuracies, the FSB, military officials, and local, national, and inter-government structures, right up to PresidentVladimir Putin, and to the OSCE Assistance Group for Chechnya in Moscow and other international organizations. They travel to reported sites of mass or unmarked graves anxious to find the remains of their loved ones.

Relatives travel at great personal cost to any place they believe they can find information, be it to prisons in cities hundreds of kilometers away, to Nazran, Ingushetia, where journalists and human rights activists are active, or even to Moscow. Almost all relatives of the "disappeared" interviewed by Human Rights Watch had traveled to detention centers around the North Caucasus searching for their relatives. Many said they had sold their personal belongings or borrowed large sums of money to conduct this search, often to no avail. Detention centers all over the North Caucasus are tableaus of desperation: relatives of the "disappeared" scour lists of prisoners, are compelled to pay venal prison guards to look in registries for their loved ones' names, and to pay sometimes large sums of money to predatory middlemen who frequent the centers, offering their "services" in locating the loved ones. Indeed, the enormous scale of detentions in Chechnya, combined with the artificial vacuum of official information, has created an entire informal infrastructure dedicated to collecting, exchanging, and buying and selling of information on the whereabout of detainees.

This report is based on Human Rights Watch research conducted in November and December 2000, and in February and March 2001 in Ingushetia with the family members of the "disappeared." It is based on dozens of interviews, as well as on correspondence between family members and federal and Chechnya Republic law enforcement agencies.

1 Human Rights Watch interview with Zulai and Lecha Aziev, Nazran, December 7, 2000.

2 Human Rights Watch interview with Rashan Alieva, Nazran, December 4, 2000.

3 Human Rights Watch interview with Rashan Alieva, Nazran, December 4, 2000.

4 Human Rights Watch interview with a relative of Adlan Eldarov who requested to remain anonymous, Nazran, November 28, 2000.

5 Fifty-two cases are described in this report, the remaining cases are on file with Human Rights Watch.

6 FSB is the Russian acronym for the Federal Security Service, the principal successor organization to the KGB. GRU stands for Glavnoe Razvedovatelnoe Upravlenie, the main intelligence agency for the Russian armed forces. MVD is the Russian acronymfor the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

7 Amnesty International, "Disappearances" and Political Killings: Human Rights Crisis of the 1990s (Amsterdam: Amnesty International, 1994).

8 This was the first thematic mechanism created by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR).

9 See UNHCR website, (Accessed March 2001).

10 General Assembly resolution 47/133, adopted 18 December 1992.

11 In June 1994 the General Assembly of the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, which replicates many of the provisions of the U.N. declaration.

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