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The current military campaign in Chechnya started in September 1999. It was sparked that month by a Chechen armed incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan and several bombings in Russia, which the Russian government quickly blamed on Chechen forces. Russia's military campaign in Chechnya has been characterized by widespread human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war, including mass killings of civilians, indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and widespread pillage. (3)

After advancing quickly through northern Chechnya, taking many towns without a fight--including Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes--Russian forces began focusing their offensive on the Chechen capital, Grozny. In early January, Chechen fighters in Grozny caught Russian forces by surprise when they broke out of the capital and temporarily took control of several towns surrounding it, including Alkhan-Kala, Gudermes, Argun and Shali. (4) Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, who at the time was Russia's commander of the United Group of Forces in Chechnya, quickly blamed the setbacks on the "tenderheartedness" of Russian troops and their "groundless trust" in Chechen civilians. (5) General Kazantsev ordered Chechnya's internal borders closed to all men between the ages of ten and sixty, and stated that all men between those ages would be taken to a "filtration camp," Chernokozovo, to be investigated for rebel affiliation. (6) Almost immediately, Russian forces in Chechnya began detaining men in this age range and sending them to a prison facility in Chernokozovo, in northern Chechnya.

In February 2000, Chechen rebel fighters abandoned Grozny and set out for the mountains of southern Chechnya to continue their fighting. Russian forces responded with further widespread arrests of Chechen males, most of them civilians without rebel affiliation. In several cases, more than one hundred male civilians were arrested in a single incident. About the same time, the first detainees from the Chernokozovo detention facilities began to be released, and spoke out about appalling abuses there. The international community reacted with outrage to the allegations and pressured Russia to end the abuses at Chernokozovo and to open the facility to outside scrutiny.

In response to intense criticism, the Russian government made some improvements to the Chernokozovo facility, and then allowed limited access to it for international agencies. Prior to visits by foreign journalists and Council of Europe delegations, detainees were transferred temporarily to conceal the overcrowded conditions as well as the abuse they had suffered. The guards warned inmates not to speak candidly with visitors, and punished those who did. As spring arrived, Chechen fighters attempted to disrupt Russian forces efforts to consolidate control over the lowlands by launching periodic ambushes and other attacks on Russian targets. Russian forces--in most cases riot police--frequently responded with round-ups of Chechens, ostensibly those suspected of affiliation with the fighters. As arrests continued, the Russian authorities decentralized their operation, holding suspects at facilities closer to the place of arrest, only later to transfer some to the spruced-up Chernokozovo and different, lesser-known detention facilities. 

This report deals exclusively with abuses committed by Russian forces against those deprived of their liberty. Russian authorities frequently deflect criticism of the human rights violations committed in Chechnya by referring to the appalling abuses committed by the Chechen side, which in this and previous conflicts have included summary execution, including by beheading, kidnaping, rape, torture and ill-treatment, and general violation of civilian immunities. Other Human Rights Watch reports and press releases have documented abuses by Chechen forces in the current conflict. However, violations committed by one side can never be used to justify violations committed by the other.