Mourners place flowers at the Tekhnologichesky Institut subway station in St. Petersburg to commemorate victims of the April 3, 2017 suicide bombing on a subway train. The attack killed 16 people and injured 50 others.  

© 2017 Alexander Petrosyan/Kommersant Getty Images.
(Moscow) – Two suspects in the St. Petersburg suicide bombing of April 3, 2017, have made credible allegations that Russian security agents forcibly disappeared them, tortured them, then staged their arrests, Human Rights Watch said today. Instead of effectively investigating these allegations, Russian authorities are threatening to disbar one of the suspect’s lawyers for refusing to turn over confidential communications with her client. The authorities should immediately stop threatening her and conduct an effective independent investigation into the abuse allegations.

Olga Dinze, the lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the Justice Ministry ordered Russia’s bar association to hold a hearing on disbarring her for refusing to give government officials notes that her client wrote her during a confidential prison meeting in August. Dinze said she suspects the government is retaliating for the complaint she filed for her client, Akram Azimov, 29, and his brother, Abror Azimov, 26, who say they were held and severely tortured in a secret detention center apparently run by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in or near Moscow.

“Russia should be rigorously investigating allegations that state officials have severely abused suspects in the St. Petersburg case, not pursuing the lawyer who is making those claims public,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Threats, secret imprisonment, and torture could compromise justice for this heinous attack.”

The bombing on a St. Petersburg metro train traveling between the Sennaya Square and Institute of Technology stations killed 16 people, including the suspected bomber, and injured 50 others. An armed group called the Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility and said it acted at the behest of the Al-Qaeda, but the assertion has not been independently verified. The Russian authorities are detaining 11 suspects. They accuse the Azimov brothers of key roles in the attack.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the Azimov brothers’ parents and lawyers and reviewed court documents, media reports, Russian government statements, and FSB videos purporting to show the arrests.

Russian and international law protects attorney-client privilege. Dinze said lawyers in Russia often communicate with imprisoned clients in writing to avoid potential wiretapping. Human Rights Watch has frequently seen this practice in its Russia work.

The Azimov brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan and became naturalized Russian citizens in 2013. They are among millions of Central Asians who have migrated to Russia in recent years in search of work, and were most recently employed in a Moscow-area sushi restaurant. Both are accused of terrorism-related offenses and weapons possession and have been held in separate isolation cells in Lefortovo prison in Moscow since the authorities announced their arrests.

In July, their lawyers filed a joint complaint with Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s chief investigative agency, over their clients’ allegations of secret detention and torture. Human Rights Watch reviewed the complaint and accompanying statements that each Azimov brother gave his lawyer. Abror Azimov is represented by Olga Dinze’s husband, Dmitry Dinze.

In the complaint and his accompanying statement, Abror Azimov said he was held in the black site somewhere in the Moscow area from April 4 to 17. He accused his captors of keeping his eyes covered for the first full week and torturing him for three days with methods including waterboarding, electroshocks to his genitals, and severe beatings to his kidneys. Once, he said, he heard his brother cry out from another part of the prison. On the last day, he said, security agents drove him to a site outside Moscow and videotaped his staged arrest.

Akram Azimov said in the joint complaint and his accompanying statement that Kyrgyz plain-clothes security agents on April 15 forcibly removed him from a medical center in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, and placed him on a flight to Moscow. He had undergone nasal surgery at the medical center that day. For nearly four days, he said, he was held in a basement cell somewhere in the Moscow area and tortured, including with electroshocks and threats of rape. On April 19, he said, security agents drove him to a bus stop on the outskirts of Moscow and videotaped his staged arrest.

The Russian online magazine Republic in July reported the existence of a secret FSB prison in southwest Moscow, and said the Azimov brothers were among five suspects it learned had been tortured there.

Abror Azimov recanted his statement about torture after FSB agents threatened reprisals against him and his family members, according to a social media posting by his lawyer.

Akram Azimov’s lawyer said FSB agents made similar threats after the lawyers filed the brothers’ complaint. “They threatened to rape his wife,” Olga Dinze said. “They threatened him that unless he retracts his confession they would torture him in the same ways they had tortured him before [in secret prison].” In October, the Investigative Committee dismissed the complaint.

In the aftermath of the St. Petersburg bombing, Russian courts revoked the citizenship of the Azimov brothers, their father and two other close family members, all born in Kyrgyzstan, and of the suspected suicide bomber, Akbarzhon Jalilov, 22, who died in the attack, and his father.

Akhral Azimov, the father of Akram and Abor Azimov, told Human Rights Watch that he and some if not all other affected family members had renounced their Kyrgyz citizenship upon becoming Russian nationals. While Kyrgyzstan permits applications for restoration of citizenship, it does not guarantee acceptance. As a result, they risk becoming stateless. Under international law states have an obligation to prevent statelessness and may not arbitrarily deprive someone of their citizenship. The citizenship revocations appear to be a form of collective punishment, Human Rights Watch said.

Any effective investigation into alleged human rights violations by Russian officials related to the St. Petersburg case should include the treatment of suspects, their lawyers, all potentially affected family members, and those who lost their Russian citizenship, Human Rights Watch said. The Kyrgyz authorities should investigate the circumstances of Akram Azimov’s transfer from Osh to Moscow.

The Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT) should examine the Investigative Committee’s role and effectiveness in conducting investigations into torture allegations, to determine whether they meet Russia’s international obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The CPT conducts ongoing dialogue with Moscow as part of its follow up to periodic and ad hoc visits to the country. Human Rights Watch also urged Russia to respond favorably to the request by the UN Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, to visit in 2018.

“The victims of the horrific St. Petersburg bombing and their families deserve justice,” Tayler said. “But a flawed investigation into the St. Petersburg attack is neither going to bring genuine justice or make people in Russia safer.”

Federal Security Service Allegations

The Federal Security Service (FSB) alleges that Abror Azimov coached Jalilov, the suspected suicide bomber, by telephone before the attack and helped plan the bombing from a Moscow suburb. In his first court appearance on April 18, Azimov described himself as an unwitting accomplice, saying he was “given instructions” but that “I did not realize that I was helping” with the attack.

The FSB accused Akram Azimov of helping transfer money from an “international terrorist group” in Turkey to finance the attack, and forging documents to help the group’s members freely move across Russia. A prosecutor said Azimov had confessed to involvement but during his first court appearance on April 20, he denied it.

Abror Azimov’s Detention

Abror Azimov’s statement, dated May 16, says police in Moscow detained him on the night of April 4, not on April 17 as Russia’s FSB announced. The FSB released a carefully edited video that day showing its agents grabbing him on a wooded path outside of Moscow and finding a handgun in the back of his pants. In the intervening 13 days, Abror Azimov alleged, unknown security agents held him in the secret prison:

After one week of detention there, they finally took the bag off my head. … They attached me to an iron pipe and immediately started to beat me in the stomach and kidney area and the head with the flat of their hands, asking questions about what my religion was – Islam. … They took off my shoes and socks and tied a wire to my left foot, pinned a clothespin to the toe of my right foot and started to give me electric shocks.

I answered the truth to their question, but the truth didn’t satisfy them, and they again started to give me electric shocks; I shouted that they should stop doing that, that I am ready to take all the blame and to record it on video.

The torture continued for about three days, his statement said. On the third day, he said, he lost consciousness after drinking a few sips of what one interrogator told him was cognac, followed by a glass of juice. When he awoke, he said, he found himself on the floor, held down by his hands and feet by his captors. “On my face was a rag on which they were pouring water,” he said. “Then I gasped and choked and fainted.” The interrogators later returned, claimed Abror was “deceiving them,” he said, and continued until:

They knocked me to the floor, completely stripped me, attached a wire to my genitals, and a clothespin to my ear and again started to give me electroshocks. … for ten seconds, six or seven times. I explained to them that I am telling the truth, but they didn’t believe me, so I started to make things up.

Abror said that from his windowless cell he could hear other people screaming. About two days before his “official” arrest, he heard a “cry” from his brother Akram, the statement said. That day, interrogators again applied electroshocks, to his finger and toes, as they tried to make him confess that a friend in Turkey was “a middleman for terrorists,” he said.

Abror Azimov, one of two brothers accused in connection with  the April 3, 2017 suicide bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg, at a court hearing 15 days later in Moscow. 

© REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

On April 17, his statement said, his captors let him wash, gave him dirty clothes, and taped a hood over his face. He was driven to an area outside Moscow, he said, and then a group of men he believes “were not the ones who tortured me” told him to start walking. “It was difficult to go [there] because I had not walked at all for two weeks,” he said. Then the men grabbed him and placed a handgun under the back beltline of his jeans.. They videotaped a part of the scene twice, making him say “yes” in one take and “no” in another, he said. While he was being driven away, hooded and cuffed, one of the men disassembled the handgun and squeezed the parts into one of his hands to leave fingerprints, he said.

The video the FSB released to the public was widely aired and reported by national and international media.

Akram Azimov’s Summary Transfer to Moscow

Akram Azimov appears to have been seized by Kyrgyz national security agents from the medical center in Osh, then summarily transferred to Russia, without due process safeguards such as judicial oversight, Human Rights Watch found. He had been visiting his mother, wife, and son in the nearby city of Jalal-Abad since late March.

In the statement taken by his lawyer, he said that plain-clothes security agents took him from the medical center on April 15, the day he had nasal surgery there. He said the agents twisted his arms behind his back and took him to the Osh offices of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee on National Security (GKNB), where they questioned him about a recent trip he had made to Turkey – he said he went to visit friends and to teach one of them to make sushi – and made him call a family member to have his Russian passport ready for pickup. After briefly returning him to the medical center for treatment because his nose was bleeding, he said, the agents put him on a plane to Moscow with an escort, who kept his passport during the flight.

Upon arrival at Domodedovo airport at around 9 p.m., he said in his statement, airport employees handed him over to men in civilian clothes. They took him to the head of the passport control line, then through an employee exit, pulled a hat over his eyes, bound his hands and feet with cuffs connected by a chain, and drove for about an hour. Then, he said, they took him to a basement cell with metal walls and a cement door, stripped him to his sweatpants and undershirt, and wrapped tape around his head to keep the hat over his eyes. He said his captors told him, “If I move they will shoot me.”

The medical center in Osh and his mother in Jalal-Abad supported the account of his removal. A signed, stamped statement from the medical center, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, confirmed that he was admitted on April 13 and received surgery for acute sinusitis on April 15. At 3:35 p.m., the statement said, three GKNB officials took Azimov away after showing their identity cards but no other documents. At 7:05 p.m., it said, the agents returned him for bandaging, then took him away again.

In a telephone interview from Jalal-Abad, Vazira Mirzakhmedova, the Azimov brothers’ mother, said that in the late afternoon of April 15, Akram briefly called her from a telephone number that she did not recognize to ask her to find his Russian passport. When she tried to call him back on his own phone, it was disconnected. Around the same time, a man who said he was a taxi driver arrived and collected Akram’s passport.

The following day, Mirzakhmedova went to the GKNB regional headquarters in Osh to ask about her son:

I was crying … “please, find out if my son is here. … Maybe I can bring him something to eat.” … I was begging, “please, you are also a human being, I am the mother, look, I’m suffering.”

After two to three hours of telling her there was no one named Akram in the building, she said, one GKNB official told her that Akram had been brought in for questioning and then released once investigators found his documents were in order.

Although Kyrgyz and Russian authorities have declined public comment, a Kyrgyz government security source told Russian media that Akram Azimov “volunteered” to fly to Moscow for questioning. He said in his statement that after his arrest was announced on April 19, Russian security agents ordered him to call his wife on a speaker phone to tell her that “I came to Moscow on my own.” He said he complied but was only able to reach his mother.

Mirzakhmedova said she was convinced her son went to Moscow involuntarily, in part because he had been removed from hospital without his shoes. “They took him away in slippers,” she said. “He wouldn’t have gone anywhere in slippers by himself.”

Kyrgyzstan and Russia have an extradition treaty that can make transfers of criminal suspects routine, and as a Russian citizen Akram required no prior approval to travel there. However, his transfer, if involuntary, was unlawful if it took place without court review of the risk of ill-treatment in Russia, Human Right Watch said. Customary international law as well as the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which Russia and Kyrgyzstan are both parties, prohibit transferring anyone to another country where they would face torture or other ill-treatment. His statement makes no mention of court approval of his transfer.

Akram Azimov’s Detention

Akram Azimov said he thought several agents worked at the basement prison where he was taken upon arrival in Moscow, but that he only saw one, who on April 18 finally removed the tape and hat that had veiled his eyes. He said the man wore civilian clothes, described himself as a long-retired security agent, and called himself “the Father of Hell.”

Azimov said his captors repeatedly tortured him during three days of interrogation about his brother, several other men, and his recent trip to Turkey:

[T]hey wrapped wet rags around my hands, put handcuffs on top, connected a wire to my hands with the help of a clothespin, and attached other clips to my toes. Then the torture by electroshocks started. They made the strength sometimes harder, sometimes weaker, with breaks in between, and asked questions the whole time. If the answer was negative, then they increased the strength of the current.

During the torture they put a rag in my mouth so that I would not scream. I couldn’t breathe because of the surgery to my nose. They also put a plastic bag on my head and cut the air flow. … Then they undressed me, took a truncheon and put Finalgon [an ointment that can cause severe pain and heat when applied to sensitive areas of the body] on it and said they would rape me.

The interrogators also threatened to torture and rape his wife in front of him, he said: “I told them everything they wanted to hear. Everything that they were urging me to say.” Among other orders, the interrogators made him memorize a detailed statement implicating his brother and several others as “terrorists,” he said.

On April 18, he said, he was threatened a second time with rape with a truncheon smeared with Finalgon, this time by the man who had identified himself as a retired security agent, who called him a “weakling” and a “terrorist” and ordered him to take off his pants.

During the four nights and three days he spent in the secret prison before his staged arrest on April 19, he said, his captors gave him only a half-liter of water and one plate of potatoes. He said he had nothing but a glass jar to use as a toilet and that numerous glass jars in his cell were filled with urine and feces that he suspected were from former prisoners.

Russian Federal Security Service officers hold Akram Azimov, one of two brothers accused in connection with the April 3, 2017 suicide bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg, in what he alleges was a staged arrest outside Moscow 16 days after the attack. 

© 2017 Getty Images
On April 19, he said, his captors allowed him to shower and put on his clothes, along with a pair of sneakers and a hip pack that they gave him. Then, he said, they drove him to the site where they filmed his staged arrest.

FSB that day released a video showing Akram Azimov’s purported arrest. The carefully edited video shows three Russian FSB agents approaching him as he sat on a bus stop bench in the outskirts of Moscow, grabbing him, unzipping his hip pack, and revealing a hand grenade that appears to be decades old. Azimov said the FSB agents told him to confess that “I found the grenade in the woods.”

Pressures to End Lawyer’s Defense

Olga Dinze said that during a meeting in Lefortovo prison, Akram Azimov told her that FSB officials had appeared aware of details of their prison meetings and “urged” him to dismiss her. Dinze said she suspected that Russian authorities were secretly listening in on their confidential communications.

During a subsequent meeting, on August 3, Akram Azimov communicated with her by writing in a notebook, she said. As she started to leave, Dinze said, prison authorities detained her for hours, unsuccessfully trying to pressure her into giving up the notes. Dinze said her client could not have passed her anything he had prepared beforehand that might have been eligible for censorship because guards had searched him before their meeting. Soon after, she said, she was notified that the Justice Ministry had ordered the national bar association to hold a hearing on her possible disbarment or other disciplinary action.

“All this harassment began when I took on the case and started speaking out” about Akram Azimov’s alleged abuse, she said.

Whether the Russian authorities are seeking to have Dinze disbarred because she brought a complaint about her client’s allegations of abuse or because she was defending her right to confidential communication with her client, the officials’ actions violated protections of the administration of justice, central to which is the independence and effective functioning of the legal profession.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is a party, has stated that “[l]awyers should be able to counsel and to represent their clients in accordance with their established professional standards and judgment without any restrictions, influences, pressures or undue interference from any quarter.” The most detailed exposition of the rights and responsibilities of lawyers is found in the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Among other things, the Basic Principles provide that:

  • Governments shall recognize and respect that all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship are confidential
  • Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; … and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.

Citizenships Revoked

In the days following the announcements of the Azimov brothers’ arrests, Russian courts revoked the Russian citizenship of the two brothers and of their father, Akhral Azimov, his brother, and his brother’s daughter. They also revoked the citizenship of the Kyrgyz-born father of the suspected St. Petersburg suicide bomber, Jalilov. and posthumously revoked Jalilov’s citizenship.

Akhral Azimov, a municipal bus driver who became a Russian citizen in 2010, said he had renounced his Kyrgyz citizenship when he became a Russian national – which Russia rigorously encourages. He said he believed at least some of the other family members had done the same. Consequently, the Azimovs may be left stateless unless they can successfully apply for reinstatement of their Kyrgyz citizenship.

Akhral Azimov called the revocation “psychological pressure” to keep him from speaking out against his sons’ treatment.

He told Human Rights Watch he has not been fired from his job or deported, but cannot transfer money or perform many other transactions because his Russian passport, which was invalidated once he lost his citizenship, is his only official identity document. He said he learned that the authorities had terminated his and his sons’ citizenship from media reports.

In an April 21 statement, Russia’s Interior Ministry announced that a court in the city of Perm had revoked Akhral Azimov’s citizenship because he “deliberately presented false information” on his application. The court revoked the sons’ citizenship because they had received citizenship through their father, it said.

In another statement that day, the Interior Ministry reported that a court in St. Petersburg had revoked Jalilov’s father’s citizenship on the grounds that he had provided false information on his citizenship application. Consequently, the court posthumously revoked the dead son’s citizenship, the ministry said.

Akhral Azimov said that when he inquired at the Federal Migration Agency about his case, an official told him his citizenship had been revoked because he had not included his former wife in Kyrgyzstan or their sons, Akram and Abror, in his list of relatives on his application. He said he had assumed the information was irrelevant because his sons were adults. A court revoked his brother’s and niece’s citizenship because they had failed to list him, he said.

Russia’s citizenship law in effect at the time of the revocations allowed termination of citizenship if the decision to grant it was based on “false information knowingly provided by the applicant.” In response to the St. Petersburg bombing, an expanded citizenship law that entered into force in September also allows citizenship termination for naturalized Russians convicted of certain terrorism-related and extremism-related crimes.

Akhral Azimov and his lawyer said they had appealed the revocation on grounds that he was never officially informed of it as Russia’s citizenship law requires. That law also forbids terminating the citizenship of Russians who lack a second citizenship or a guarantee of obtaining another one.

While Russian authorities may have revoked citizenship on grounds provided for in domestic law, their reason for seeking the revocation was clearly political and punitive and therefore arbitrary. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to a nationality,” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

Although international law allows for revocation of nationality in certain circumstances, specific procedural and substantive standards must be met, including the principle of proportionality. The revocation must be for a legitimate purpose that is consistent with international law not, for example, as an act of collective punishment, or on spurious grounds. The notion of arbitrariness includes elements of inappropriateness, injustice, and lack of predictability. The principle of proportionality requires that it be the least intrusive measure to achieve the desired result, and proportional to the interest to be protected.

A 2009 UN Secretary-General report on human rights and the arbitrary deprivation of nationality states that “regardless of the general rules regulating nationality issues at the domestic level, States should ensure that safeguards are in place to ensure that nationality is not denied to persons with relevant links to that State who would otherwise be stateless.”