On the eve of the October 30 E.U.-Russia summit, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the cycle of torture and extortion faced by thousands of Chechens whom Russian forces have detained in Chechnya. The rights group called on European states to file a case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, for these and other abuses during the war in Chechnya.
The 99-page report, entitled "Welcome to Hell," describes how Russian troops have detained thousands of Chechens on suspicion of collaboration with rebel fighters. Many of them were detained arbitrarily, with no evidence of wrongdoing. Guards at detention centers systematically beat Chechen detainees, some of whom have also been raped or subjected to other forms of torture. Most were released only after their families managed to pay large bribes to Russian officials. Russian authorities have launched no credible and transparent effort to investigate these abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice.
"Welcome to hell" is how guards at the Chernokozovo detention facility would greet detainees, before forcing them to undergo a hail of blows by baton-wielding guards.
"These are not just abuses of the past," said Rachel Denber, Acting Director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Even today, any Chechen civilian is at risk of arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse at the hands of Russian troops."
Chechens who do not have proper identity papers, who share a surname with a Chechen commander, who are thought to have relatives who are fighters, or who simply "look" like fighters, continue to be detained and abused on a daily basis in their communities or at Chechnya's hundreds of checkpoints. Many "disappear" for months as Russian officials keep them in incommunicado detention. Some are eventually released when relatives pay a bribe. Others never come back.
Fear of detention has prevented tens of thousands of internally displaced persons from returning to their homes in Chechnya. It has also confined those who have remained inside Chechnya, particularly young men, to their homes or communities.
The E.U. has sharply criticized Russia's actions in Chechnya. It sponsored a resolution at the United Commission on Human Rights urging Russia to launch a national commission of inquiry that would establish accountability for abuse. Six months after the resolution's adoption, the Russian government has failed to launch a credible investigation into human rights abuse in Chechnya, including torture at detention centers. So far, the E.U. has taken no steps to press Russia to form the commission.
"The E.U. has given Russia more than enough time to launch a credible investigation into abuses in Chechnya," Denber said. "If the E.U. wants to retain its credibility on human rights issues, it should act now."
The report closely scrutinizes abuse at the Chernokozovo detention facility, which became infamous for torture in early 2000, and then underwent a massive clean-up after an outcry by the media and international community. The report also documents abuse in facilities at Piatigorsk, Stavropol, Urus-Martan, the Mozdok and Khankala military bases, and others.
At several detention centers, baton-wielding guards formed a human gauntlet and forced incoming detainees to run through. At least one man, Aindi Kovtorashvili, died as a result of gauntlet-style beatings.
Human Rights Watch researchers also gathered testimony from several former detainees about rape and sexual assault of both men and women. A number of former detainees also gave detailed accounts of the injuries they sustained to their ribs, liver, kidneys, testicles, and feet from prolonged beatings.
Most former detainees interviewed for the report were released only after their families had paid substantial bribes—ranging from U.S.$75 to $5,000—to their Russian captors or predatory intermediaries. Such bribes were demanded so often that in many cases, detention itself appeared to have been motivated by the promise of financial gain, rather than by the need to identify rebel elements.
In February 2000, delegations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited detention centers in Chechnya. Following its visits, the Committee explicitly requested Russian authorities to investigate allegations of abuse at Chernokozovo and other facilities.
It is unclear, though, whether the Russian government has done so. Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to provide details regarding any such investigations. Human Rights Watch also called on the Russian government to make public the Committee's reports on its February and April 2000 trips to Chechnya; under Committee rules of confidentiality, only the government under investigation can make reports public.