(Moscow, March 4, 2011) - Russian authorities need to make swift and meaningful progress in investigating a case of disappearance and torture in Chechnya and punishing those responsible, Human Rights Watch, Front Line, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Civil Rights Defenders said today. Russian authorities at the highest level need to ensure the safety of Islam Umarpashaev, the torture victim, as well as that of human rights defenders who are helping him seek justice, the groups said.
On December 11, 2009, Islam Umarpashaev was forcibly disappeared, when he was abducted from his home in Chechnya and held in incommunicado detention until his release on April 2, 2010. During his detention, he was subjected to torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment. Umarpashaev alleges that he was held at the headquarters of the Chechen Special Task Police Force (OMON) and has described being handcuffed to a radiator for the first three months of his detention, beaten, threatened, and deprived of food on a regular basis.
"We have been working in Chechnya for many years," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, "these days, people there are simply paralyzed by fear, not daring to lodge complaints against law enforcement and security officials under de facto control of the Chechnya leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. By persevering in his quest for justice, Islam Umarpashaev is displaying immense courage."
During his captivity, not knowing where he was or what was happening to him, Umarpashaev's family sought assistance from the Joint Mobile Group of Russian Human Rights Organizations in Chechnya (Mobile Group) to secure his release and to bring those holding him to justice. The Mobile Group is led by the Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture and works under the auspices of the Public Commission on Chechnya, a coalition of leading Russian human rights groups created following a wave of killing of activists in Chechnya. The Mobile Group investigates crimes in which the involvement of local officials is alleged. It established a permanent presence in Chechnya in early November 2009 with human rights defenders, mostly lawyers, from various Russian regions working in Chechnya on a rotating basis.
With the help from the Mobile Group, the relatives of the disappeared immediately lodged a complaint at the local level and a month later, in January 2010, filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
Upon receipt of the application the European Court asked the Russian government whether Umarpashaev had been apprehended by state agents and what steps had been taking to establish his whereabouts. When releasing Umarpashaev from captivity in early April 2010, the perpetrators told him that he was being freed because his "father went all the way to the European Court and created problems." They also forced him to promise to keep quiet about what had happened to him and ordered him to say he had been absent on personal business. Umarpashaev, his family, and human rights defenders from the Joint Mobile Group are now in danger of reprisals for their efforts to seek justice in the case, the four groups said.
After Umarpashaev's release and in light of his courageous resolve to continue the legal battle for justice, Joint Mobile Group together with several other human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have appealed to the Russian Federation's ombudsman and the chairperson of Russia's Presidential Human Rights Council for assistance. The groups sought to convince the prosecutor general to transfer the Umarpashaev investigation from the local level to the federal level. They said that impunity for such crimes is so rampant in Chechnya that an effective investigation by local authorities was impossible, and that moving the case was necessary to protect Umarpashaev from retaliation. Both the ombudsman and the Presidential Council chairperson sent similar requests to the prosecutor general.
The prosecutor general's office refused to transfer the investigation insisting that the case could be handled by the Chechnya prosecutor's office and that Umarpashaev's security would be ensured by the local witness protection program. However, soon afterwards, on August 17, 2010, a witness protection officer assigned to Umarpashaev and his family facilitated a meeting between a Chechen OMON commander and Umarpashaev's father and brother. According to them, the commander threatened them with severe reprisals unless they could convince Islam Umarpashaev to withdraw his complaint.
"This case is a stark example of how flawed Russia's witness protection system is - at least as far as Chechen victims of human rights violations are concerned, said Robert Hårdh, executive director of Civil Rights Defenders. "The torture of Umarpashaev and the subsequent attitude of the local law enforcement agents show how serious the current human rights situation in Chechnya is, and reveal once more the general lack of respect for the rule of law in the North Caucasus region."
In January this year, after an intense public campaign in support of Umarpashaev and the personal intervention of European Commissioner on Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, the prosecutor general's office finally transferred the case to the federal level. The result was tangible progress in the investigation, including having the victim visit the site of the alleged crime with the investigators and identify one of the supposed perpetrators.
"This long-awaited decision is a positive sign, and we hope it will ensure justice in the case of Umarpashaev," said Souhayr Belhassen, president of FIDH. "Impunity for abductions and torture in Chechnya has been rampant for many years. Only one Russian police officer has been punished for torturing a Chechen detainee. No Chechen law enforcement or security officials under Kadyrov's control have ever been brought to account for such crimes. This perpetuates human rights abuses in Chechnya and more broadly in the North Caucasus."
Despite, or perhaps because of, progress in the case, the security of Umarpashaev, his family members, and the Joint Mobile Group staff appears to be under serious threat, the four organizations said.
The Joint Mobile Group and Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent Russian newspaper, reported that at a ministerial meeting in February 2011 in Grozny where the case was discussed, the head of the Chechen OMON threatened that if investigators tried to enter OMON premises, he would order his officers to open fire.
Both the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Chechnya and the key Russian military base, Khankala, refused the investigators' requests for armed escorts to the OMON premises, allegedly for fear of possible bloodshed. Eventually, the investigation team secured the assistance of officers from the Chechnya investigative committee's own security service and were able to enter the OMON headquarters, accompanied by Umarpashaev and a representative of the Mobile Group, who participated at their own risk.
Only one OMON servicemen was present on the premises but Umarpashaev identified him as one of the officers who had mistreated him when he was confined there. Currently, the investigation is seeking to interrogate all of the OMON servicemen and to enable Umarpashaev to identify other possible perpetrators.
Umarpashaev and his close relatives have received numerous threats, and the Joint Mobile Group evacuated him and his entire family to safety outside of Chechnya. However, Umarpashaev still has to travel to Chechnya for investigation activities and the Mobile Group's personnel remain in Grozny and cooperate with the investigation. Given the history of this case, the threats against Umarpashaev and his family, and the climate of impunity in Chechnya, including for the killing of human rights defenders, Umarpashaev and the human rights activists working on his case appear to be in serious danger, the four organizations said.
"We are extremely concerned for the security the human rights defenders in the Mobile Group who have courageously come to Umarpashaev's aid," said Mary Lawlor, director of Front Line.
"Russia's international partners should call on the Russian government to protect the Mobile Group staff and Islam Umarpashaev and his family. They need to make it clear to their Russian counterparts that any threat to the human rights defenders working on this case or to the victim and his relatives will be perceived as obstruction of the investigation."
Only an effective investigation into this and other egregious cases of human rights violations in Chechnya will indicate that Russia is truly committed to the rule of law, as President Dmitri Medvedev frequently contends, Human Rights Watch, Front Line, FIDH, and Civil Rights Defenders said. An effective investigation and accountability for those responsible in this case could also serve as a cornerstone for ending impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya. The organizations called on Russia's president to monitor the progress of the investigation personally and to guarantee the security of Umarpashaev, his family, and the human rights defenders assisting him in his struggle for justice.