Russian forces in Chechnya arbitrarily detain, torture, and kill civilians in a climate of lawlessness, Human Rights Watch said today. In a 51-page report, Human Rights Watch details a series of military sweep operations during which it found hundreds of men were arbitrarily detained, dozens tortured, and at least six extrajudicially executed.

Russian forces in Chechnya arbitrarily detain, torture, and kill civilians in a climate of lawlessness, Human Rights Watch said today. In a 51-page report, Human Rights Watch details a series of military sweep operations during which it found hundreds of men were arbitrarily detained, dozens tortured, and at least six extrajudicially executed.

"For a year now Russian authorities have been claiming that the situation in Chechnya is returning to normal," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But in fact civilians face a daily threat of being arbitrarily detained, tortured, or just 'disappearing' in custody. That's a far cry from 'normal.'"

The report, titled Swept Under: Torture, Forced Disappearances, and Extrajudicial Killings During Sweep Operations in Chechnya, documents abuses during sweep operations that took place in June and July 2001 in the villages Alkhan-Kala, Sernovodsk, and Assinovskaia. In a sweep operation, Russian forces, responding to Chechen rebel hostilities, typically seal off a village and run identity checks and searches of residents. The operations in mid-2001 took place against a backdrop of Russian government pledges to withdraw troops and return internally displaced persons safely to their homes, even as clashes continued between Russian forces and Chechen rebels. Since July 2001, Russian forces have conducted dozens more sweep operations throughout Chechnya, committing many of the same abuses described in the report.

Among the cases detailed is that of "Magomed Asanukaev,"(not the man's true name) whom Russian forces detained in the Sernovodsk sweep on July 2. They threw him in a truck with no explanation, held him in a concrete pit, and tortured him with electric shocks, attempting to coerce information about rebel fighters. He was later released, but others were not. Zelimkhan Umkhanov and Apti Isigov "disappeared" after Russian forces took them into custody; relatives to this day have been unable to get information from Russian forces about their whereabouts. On June 21 Russian forces apprehended Rustam Razhepov, 35, and Daud Vitaev, 27, during the Alkhan-Kala operation; their corpses were found in an unmarked grave on June 22.

Andersen noted that a Human Rights Watch follow-up mission to the region in December discovered that the human rights situation had further deteriorated. "Over the last six months, civilians in Chechnya have 'disappeared' at a rate of more than one every week," she said. The Russian human rights group Memorial documented more than twenty "disappearances" in December 2001 alone.

Meanwhile, Andersen said, Chechnya has fallen off the map in the post-September 11 foreign policy climate. "Governments don't have the political will to make genuine accountability for crimes against civilians a benchmark for their Russia policy," said Andersen. "And this message hasn't been lost on the Kremlin. The carte blanche for violence against civilians is shattering whatever trust Chechens have had in Moscow, torpedoing peace efforts, and ultimately undermining Russia as a credible partner in the international war against terrorism."

The current climate of lawlessness in Chechnya, Andersen said, follows from a long-standing failure by Russian authorities to bring abusive forces to justice. Many Chechen civil servants who cooperate with Moscow threatened to quit after the summer sweep operations, prompting Moscow to acknowledge abuses and promise an investigation. The Human Rights Watch report says investigations, principally into property damage, in the Sernovodsk operation are ongoing. To date, no comprehensive investigation is under way with regard to the Alkhan-Kala sweep.

Responding to criticism about the winter sweep operations, Vladimir Kalamanov, President Putin's special representative on human rights in Chechnya said on January 31 that he was "pleased by the pace of investigations" into crimes by servicemen against civilians," and vowed that "no crime would be left unpunished."

"Without ongoing engagement by the international community, Russia will be able to continue issuing empty promises of justice," said Andersen.

Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which will convene in March, to adopt a resolution condemning ongoing violations in Chechnya and called on Russia to allow U.N. special rapporteurs on torture and on extrajudicial executions to conduct investigations in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch also called on the Bush administration to raise the matter with the Russian government. President Bush is expected to visit Moscow in May.