Violent counter-terrorism measures in the small Muslim republic are intensifying the anti-government uprising.
When did it all change? It started gradually with abuses slowly seeping out of Chechnya into Ingushetia. First, in 2002, began the abductions of Chechen refugees by Russian military and security servicemen who were hunting for Chechen rebels. Then, in 2003, a few Ingush were kidnapped. Some disappeared without a trace.
The turning point was in June 2004, when a group of insurgents led by the infamous Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev stormed two towns in Ingushetia. The official total of casualties resulting from Basayev's raid was 98 killed and 104 wounded, including law enforcement and security personnel, officials and civilians.
For a small republic like Ingushetia, such losses were staggering. In the wake of the raid, people rallied around the government and broadly welcomed counter-terrorism operations. Now, four years later, things have changed so much that is hard to recall. That's largely because, as Human Rights Watch has documented in a new report, those operations turned out to be "Chechnya-style."
Young men suspected of involvement with insurgency were hauled off by security services and tortured into incriminating themselves and others. Those who they named when the beatings and the electric shocks became unbearable were also rounded up and tortured.
After the hostage-taking atrocity at a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in September 2004, these "dirty war" tactics became even more widespread in neighbouring Ingushetia. The "lucky" ones who were tortured but released – as opposed to disappeared or convicted in flawed trials – knew that normal life was over. They were already in the database of the "usual suspects" and would either have to flee Ingushetia, be ready for further detention and torture, or join the rebels for the lack of a better choice. As the Ingush insurgents developed a militant Islamist agenda, the authorities also tagged as a potential insurgent any strictly observant young Muslim.
Ingush villages suffered sweeps and targeted raids. Here is how a man from Ali-Yurt described a counter-terrorism raid in his village in July 2007:
Those servicemen beat me with their feet and the butts of their submachine guns … They yelled, 'Why did you kill that soldier?' I tried to say I didn't do it. They just screamed, 'Shut up, you son of a bitch!' and hit me again … When they finally left, I saw my [pregnant] wife was lying on the floor … Her face was covered with blood.
Soon after, insurgent attacks became bolder and more frequent. And law-enforcement and security agencies responded with yet more abuse. Some youths suspected of insurgency were shot dead on the spot.
Twenty-year-old Islam Belokiev was shot one summer afternoon in a busy car market. He fell to the ground but was still alive. People rushed to his aid, but were blocked by armed security servicemen who surrounded Belokiev and watched him slowly bleed to death. Later, the authorities claimed that Belokiev was a rebel fighter.
The youngest victim of such a killing, though, could not be branded an insurgent – Rakhim Amriev was only six years old. Security services erroneously suspected that a terrorist was hiding in his parents' home. They stormed the house at dawn and opened fire without warning. It's been nearly seven months since little Rakhim was killed, but the authorities still have not held those who killed him to account.
The child's killing wreaked havoc in Ingushetia. A group of activists and victims' families planned a protest rally. The authorities threatened the organisers, banned the rally and violently dispersed those who dared to show up for it. Two months later, they banned the next opposition rally, claiming there was a "terrorist threat".
To silence media coverage of public protests, the Ingush authorities variously detained, kidnapped, expelled, beat and issued death threats against 16 journalists and human rights defenders. Having shut down free speech, the authorities give those grieving for their loved ones and seeking a way to express discontent nowhere to turn.
All of these tactics have served only to alienate and even radicalise communities. After four years of counter-terrorism in Ingushetia, the insurgency has only intensified. Those people who once supported the government's counter-terrorism agenda now see the government as the enemy.
It didn't have to be this way. And Russia's European partners can help the people of Ingushetia, and the wider region, by using their influence with Moscow to change this policy. Russia can still end impunity for killings, disappearances and torture in Ingushetia. It can work to regain the trust of Ingush communities and starve the insurgency of potential supporters. It can stop Ingushetia from becoming the full-blown human rights crisis that is synonymous with Chechnya.