Russian forces have raped and sexually assaulted women during winter operations in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch charged today.

Five women have told Human Rights Watch researchers about incidents of sexual violence they endured earlier this year. Three of the women tried to report the assaults to local authorities who refused to investigate the allegations.

During so-called "sweep" operations, when Russian forces conduct house-to-house searches for those believed to be involved in Chechen rebel activity, male relatives often leave their villages for safer locations to reduce the risk of arbitrary arrest, torture, and "disappearances." However, without men in the house, women become more vulnerable to soldiers intent on sexual assault.

The social and cultural barriers to reporting sexual violence are high in Chechnya.

"The Russian government is telling the world that life is returning to normal in Chechnya," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But it hasn't brought anyone to justice for these terrible crimes of sexual violence."

Andersen urged the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, now meeting in Geneva, to adopt a resolution condemning Russian abuses in Chechnya. In the past two years, the Commission has adopted strongly worded resolutions on the Chechnya conflict, condemning violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and calling on Russia to establish a national commission of inquiry and bring abusers to justice. The Russian government has rejected both resolutions.

"Aset Asimova" (not the woman's real name), a 43-year-old widow, told Human Rights Watch that she was at home with her eight-year-old son when drunken soldiers came in early February. Three of them took her into a separate room while others looted the house. "They tore my dress. They asked me where the men were, they asked me how long I had been without a husband." The soldiers then told her to undress, and when she fought them off they beat her with the butts of their rifles, and raped her. "I don't know how many of them raped me. I lost consciousness, when it was happening. When I came to, they were pouring water on me … then they left."

"Asimova" did not report the rape to authorities. Human Rights Watch researchers have found that many women are reluctant to report crimes of sexual assault, fearing stigma and retaliation. "Asimova's" first action after the soldiers left was to hide what had happened, so her grown son would not learn of the rape. "I smeared the blood on my nose and mouth, as if I had been beaten there and that was the reason for it. I cleaned everything, and hid my dress and put on a clean one."

Other women tried to report sexual assaults and found their efforts thwarted by local authorities. During a January 29 sweep operation, soldiers sexually assaulted "Madina Magomedova" (not her real name) and her sisters in their parents' home. Soldiers had come to "Magomedova's" house earlier in the day, and she suspected they returned because they knew that there were no men there.

"They wanted to touch me, they said I had pretty lips and that they would kiss me," she told Human Rights Watch. "I knew what they wanted to do and started to resist. One of the soldiers said 'Wait bitch until I fuck you.'" "Magomedova" told Human Rights Watch that she had not been raped, but that the soldiers beat her badly while she struggled against them; she needed three days of bedrest to recover.

Soldiers threatened "Magomedova's" sisters in her presence, and also tried to coerce one of them to perform oral sex. "They wanted to arrest my older sister, because she only has a temporary registration certificate, not an internal passport. One asked if she was married and when she said she was divorced, they asked her if she 'had ever given a blow job before.' They said 'his dick would only have to be in her mouth five minutes,' and 'that it would be good for both of them.'" "Magomedova" filed a criminal case with the prosecutor's office for sexual assault despite warnings from the soldiers against it and a local prosecutor who discouraged her from going forward with the case. Fearing retribution, she eventually fled to a different town.

In another case, two sisters detained in early March suffered sexual assault while in custody. Relatives convinced the two women to come forward to report their ill-treatment to state authorities. "Luiza Larsanova" (not the woman's real name), a 27-year-old woman, was detained on March 4, 2002 and held in two locations before being released the same evening. Soldiers threatened "Larsanova" with rape to coerce information from her about Chechen fighters.

She told Human Rights Watch, "In the first place they beat me, and that was bad. But in the second place, they said they would rape me. That was worse. I was sitting on a chair, and one of them grabbed me from behind, and started to caress me, as if to calm me but really it was terrifying, saying 'oh you're so sweet, so tiny.' I was wearing woolen long underwear under my skirt, and he told me to take them and my skirt off. I was crying, and said I had nothing to tell them and to leave me alone, I was practically on my knees, begging him not to touch me."

"Larsanova" told Human Rights Watch that although the soldiers groped her breasts and fondled her, they did not rape her.

"Larsanova's" 21-year-old sister "Tsatsita Timurova" (not her real name), detained the previous day, also told Human Rights Watch that while detained she was beaten, groped, and threatened, but not raped. The soldiers who released the sisters warned them not to file any complaints about their treatment. "Larsanova" did approach local police officers she knew personally who discouraged her from proceeding. "When I tried to tell them what happened, they said I should name where I was held and who detained me," she told Human Rights Watch. "Larsanova" had been hooded when she was detained and transported, as are many detainees in Chechnya, and could not provide such identifying details. Separately, "Timurova" was rebuffed when she went to her local police station to complain.

These are not the first allegations of rape and sexual violence by Russian forces to emerge from Chechnya. In January 2002, Human Rights Watch provided a memorandum documenting other cases of rape and sexual assault in Chechnya to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In a public statement, the Committee raised serious concerns about the Russian Federation's failure to conduct proper investigations or hold perpetrators accountable in the vast majority of cases in the face of strong evidence that members of the Russian forces committed acts of rape and other sexual violence against women during the armed conflict in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch also sent letters supporting the U.N. Committee's call for accountability for these crimes to the members of the Russian Duma-Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Working Group on Chechnya on March 28, 2002.