July 8 Update
On July 7, 2014, the Urus-Martan Town Court of the Chechen Republic found Ruslan Kutaev guilty on dubious drug possession charges. Kutaev was sentenced to four years in prison and an additional year of restricted freedoms after his release, which includes a ban on involvement in public activities. Kutaev will appeal the ruling. "This is a serious miscarriage of justice,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We have no doubt that Kutaev is being punished for his activism and hope that justice will prevail on appeal.”
(Moscow, April 8, 2014) – Russian authorities should immediately free Ruslan Kutaev, the head of an independent Chechen group. Kutaev was arrested on February 20, 2014, on politically motivated drug charges. Russian authorities should drop the charges against him and ensure that the investigation into allegations that police tortured him is effective.
Two days before his arrest, Kutaev publicly criticized an order handed down by Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kutaev, 57, made the critical remark during a conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of Chechens during World War II. Kutaev heads the Peoples of the Caucasus’ Assembly, an independent group that works to raise cultural awareness about the Caucasus and its peoples. He was the co-organizer of the conference.
“Ruslan Kutaev’s arrest and the vicious, unlawful way he has been treated are stark reminders that you’d better not criticize the Chechen authorities,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The climate of fear is so intense that very few people dare criticize Kadyrov’s policies in any area.”
Chechen authorities charged Kutaev with possession of a large quantity of heroin. Russian human rights defenders and several independent journalists have said that Chechen law enforcement officials arrested Kutaev and tortured him with beatings and electric shocks in retaliation for his critical remarks and for organizing the commemorative conference, which local authorities had deemed subversive.
The Soviet government deported Chechens en masse to Central Asia on February 23, 1944. Because February 23, 2014, fell on the closing day of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Kadyrov made a public statement banning memorial events to avoid casting a shadow over the closing ceremonies. During the conference, which the organizers held on February 18 to avoid antagonizing the authorities, Kutaev sharply criticized the ban, suggesting it reflected a lack of commitment on the part of the authorities to safeguarding historical memory.
Igor Kalyapin, head of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian human rights organizations in Chechnya, told Human Rights Watch that on February 20 he received a frantic phone call from Kutaev. Kutaev told Kalyapin that the head of Kadyrov’s administration called him personally on February 19 to say that Kadyrov was angry about the conference and wanted to speak to the organizers, and particularly to Kutaev. Kutaev said that the tone of the conversation was very threatening.
Afraid for his life, immediately after the call Kutaev left his home for the village of Gekhi, where his relatives live.
Kalyapin, who spoke to witnesses, told Human Rights Watch that at approximately 2 p.m. on February 20, about 30 law enforcement and security officials arrived at the home of Kutaev’s relatives in Gekhi. In response to the noise, Kutaev walked out into the yard. The officials immediately pounced on him, threw him into a vehicle, and drove off. Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch that he had spoken to two witnesses, who said that the officials had not searched Kutaev or the house before taking him away.
At 1 a.m. on February 21, Kutaev was registered at the Urus-Martan district police station and charged with drug possession. The admission registrar noted that there were multiple bruises on Kutaev’s body.
“When police take a man away and he turns up 11 hours later in custody covered in bruises, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that they beat him,” Williamson said.
When police delivered Kutaev to the Urus-Martan police precinct, they claimed he had confessed to possession of three grams of heroin, which police officials had allegedly found in his back pocket. Kutaev denied this to his lawyer. Nevertheless, on February 22 at his remand hearing, Kutaev stated that he had “found the bag of heroin in a taxi” and unintentionally put it in his pocket. The judge ruled that Kutaev should remain in custody until his trial.
Kalyapin and a defense lawyer he hired saw Kutaev on February 24, when he was still at the Urus-Martan police station. In the presence of guards and other officials, Kutaev told Kalyapin he had not been ill-treated, but when Kalyapin asked Kutaev to take his shirt off, Kalyapin saw bruises on his body, a large hematoma on his back, and bruising on his rib. Kalyapin took photographs and made a video recording, which Human Rights Watch later examined. According to Kalyapin, a medical exam conducted in March found that Kutaev had two fractured ribs.
When Kutaev was allowed to meet with his lawyer privately, he wrote notes saying that on the day of his arrest unidentified personnel beat him, subjected him to electric shocks, and threatened harm to his family members to force Kutaev to confess to drug possession with intent to sell. Novaya Gazeta published photocopies of some of the notes, which Human Rights Watch examined.
Kutaev also told his lawyer that when law enforcement officials took him from his relatives’ house in Gekhi they covered his face. After 30 to 40 minutes the car stopped and Kutaev managed to catch a glimpse of the compound that houses Kadyrov’s administration in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Kutaev told the lawyer that unidentified personnel took him to a basement in the compound and stripped him. Kutaev said they beat and tortured him with electric shocks in presence of the head of Kadyrov’s administration and the deputy minister of internal affairs. Kutaev said that the torture went on for several hours and that he lost consciousness several times before finally admitting to drug possession.
After his visit with Kutaev on February 24, Kalyapin immediately asked Russia’s ombudsman and the chair of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights to intervene in the case with Chechen and federal officials. He also spoke to the news media about Kutaev’s apparent torture. The next day Kadyrov made a statement on a primetime Chechen television program accusing Kalyapin and the Joint Mobile Group of defending “bandits and junkies” and working against Russia and Chechnya.
On February 28 the investigation into the case against Kutaev was officially completed, and the case was sent to a court. If convicted, Kutaev will face up to 12 years in jail. A trial date has not yet been set.
On March 2 Chechnya’s Investigative Committee, the government body authorized to conduct criminal investigations, opened a preliminary inquiry into the allegations that Kutaev was tortured. The inquiry is ongoing. In mid-March Russia’s ombudsman and the head of Russia’s presidential human rights council jointly petitioned the general prosecutor’s office to transfer Kutaev to a different region of Russia to ensure his safety and to move the torture inquiry to a federal level. The prosecutor general’s office has not yet responded.
“Instead of looking into the very credible torture allegations, the Chechen leader has attacked those who brought those allegations to public attention,” Williamson said. “It is surprising that any leader would behave in this way. Russia’s authorities should immediately get to the bottom of this case and hold those responsible for Kutaev’s arrest and mistreatment accountable.”