Welcome to hell. You're lost now. You will die a slow and painful death. We will teach you to respect Russian officers.
Chechen detainees who arrived at the Russian Chernokozovo "filtration" camp in January 2000 received an ominous welcome. "Welcome to hell," the prison guards would say, and then force them to walk through a human corridor of baton-wielding guards. This was only the beginning of a ghastly cycle of abuse for most detainees in early 2000, who suffered systematic beatings, rape, and other forms of torture. Most were released only after their families managed to pay large sums to Russian officials bent on extortion.
Those forced to run the gauntlet were among the thousands of Chechens detained by Russian forces on suspicion of collaboration with rebel fighters. Since September 1999, Russia has waged a military campaign to reestablish control over Chechnya that has cost thousands of civilian lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and caused massive destruction to civilian infrastructure. Civilians bore the brunt of Russian forces' indiscriminate and disproportionate bombardments, of summary executions, and other violations of the rules of internal armed conflict. Although the military offensive tapered off by April 2000, tens of thousands of displaced Chechens fear returning home lest they or their husbands, sons, fathers, or brothers be arrested or killed by Russian forces. Thousands more in Chechnya do not dare leave their communities, even to seek medical treatment. There is a lot to fear: by the end of May 2000, the Ministry of Interior claimed that more than ten thousand people had been arrested in Chechnya since the beginning of 2000, of whom 478 were on the "wanted list," and more than a thousand of whom were "[Chechen] rebels and their accomplices." (1)Arrests continued throughout Chechnya as this report went to press. Most of the detained we1re taken to detention centers set up throughout Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, where they were subjected to severe abuses.
This report documents arbitrary arrests and the abuses that occur in detention in Chechnya, focusing on Chernokozovo and six other detention facilities identified in the region: in Tolstoy-Yurt, Khankala, and Urus-Martan, all in Chechnya; in Pyatigorsk and Stavropol, in Stavropol province, and in Mozdok, North Ossetia. It is based on the work of Human Rights Watch researchers who identified and interviewed dozens of former detainees over a four-month period from February to May 2000, carefully cross-checking and corroborating individual accounts with the information gathered from other interviews.
The torture and other abuse documented in this report are serious violations of Russia's obligations under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and of Protocol II to the convention which elaborates the rules for internal armed conflict, and under the instruments of international human rights law to which Russia is also party.
Arbitrary arrest and torture in detention centers are not a new phenomenon in Chechnya. During the 1994-1996 Chechen war, Russian forces also rounded up thousands of Chechen civilians and took them for interrogation to detention centers in Mozdok, Grozny, Pyatigorsk, and Stavropol. Detainees were abused and tortured in these camps during the first war, and frequently were exchanged for captured Russian soldiers or cash. Many detainees never came home, "disappearing" forever following their detention by Russian forces.
Mass Arrests and Arbitrary Detention
As soon as armed conflict resumed in Chechnya in September 1999, Russian authorities began arresting men and women at checkpoints, during sweeps that followed military hostilities, and in targeted sweeps of communities. Although Russia has not declared a state of emergency in Chechnya, due process rights are routinely ignored in the arrest process. Detained persons are frequently held incommunicado, and many remain in unacknowledged detention, "disappeared" months after their arrest. The grounds for detention are often wholly arbitrary: men and women are detained simply because they are found in locations that are not their official, permanent address, because their documents are incomplete, because they share a surname with a Chechen commander, because they are perceived to have relatives who are fighters, or because they "look" like fighters.
Chechens are so commonly detained at checkpoints within Chechnya and along Chechnya's borders with other parts of Russia that many have gone to great lengths to avoid travel altogether, even when they need to flee active fighting. Checkpoint officials are often abusive towards fleeing civilians, particularly towards young males. Men were regularly beaten during the detention process, and frequently subjected to taunts and threats. On occasion, women have been raped at checkpoints after being detained: Human Rights documented the rape of two young women at the main Kavkaz border crossing in late January 2000.
Russian forces commonly rounded up and detained groups of Chechen men in "mop-ups," or operations to flush out or detain rebels and their collaborators, following the takeover of Chechen communities. Russian forces also carry out arrest sweeps and house-to-house searches after guerrilla ambushes or other attacks. In some cases, the male population of a village was rounded up, taken to an empty field, and subjected to beatings while Russian officials looked for suspected rebels. Those rounded up in mop-up or sweep operations are treated especially harshly: Russian forces beat them mercilessly, sometimes to death, and have summarily executed others. In one case, Akhmed Doshaev was summarily executed by Russian soldiers after being arrested in Shaami-Yurt on February 5, 2000.
Torture and Other Abuse at Chernokozovo
During January and early February 2000, when the war was in its most intense phase, the remand prison at Chernokozovo, located some sixty kilometers north-west of Grozny, was the principal destination for detainees in Chechnya. Detainees arriving at Chernokozovo were met by two lines of baton-wielding guards forming a human gauntlet, and received a punishing beating before entering the facility. At least one detainee, Aindi Kovtorashvilli, died at the facility on January 11, 2000, when an earlier head wound was aggravated during the intake beating.
Detainees at Chernokozovo were beaten both during interrogation and during nighttime sessions when guards utterly ran amok. During interrogation, detainees were forced to crawl on the ground and were beaten so severely that some sustained broken ribs and injuries to their kidneys, liver, testicles, and feet. (2) Some were also tortured with electric shocks.
At night, guards were given free rein for wanton abuse and humiliation. Often drunk and playing loud music, guards would subject detainees to beatings and humiliating games. Some of the most severe beatings took place at night: detainees report being beaten unconscious, only to be revived and beaten again. Detainees were forced to crawl across rooms with guards on their backs, and were beaten if they performed too slowly. In their cells, detainees were ordered to stand with their hands raised for entire days, and guards used teargas if their orders were disobeyed. Convincing evidence exists that men and women were raped and sexually assaulted with police batons at Chernokozovo.
In mid-February, amid mounting international attention to human rights abuses in Chechnya and calls for visits by international delegations, Russian authorities ordered a clean-up of the Chernokozovo facility. A visit in early February 2000 by Russian military officials found serious evidence of abuse, even though many abused inmates were removed from the facility prior to the visit and others were warned not to complain. By the time international monitors and journalists visited the facility in late February 2000, conditions had improved and most of the evidence of abuse had been removed. Russian officials, including presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky and special presidential representative for human rights Vladimir Kalamanov, issued blanket denials about abuses at Chernokozovo. To date, there has been no formal investigation into the abuse at Chernokozovo.
Abuses and Torture at Other Places of Detention
Improvements in conditions at Chernokozovo by mid-February did not bring relief for the increasing number of detainees who were taken to other detention places. Detainees continued to suffer abuses at checkpoints, police stations, military bases, and prisons within and beyond Chechnya.
At remand prisons in Stavropol and Pyatigorsk, both located in the Stavropol territory, detainees were also met with a gauntlet of soldiers who beat them with batons, and suffered continuing severe beatings while at the detention facilities. At Mozdok military base, detainees were sodomized with batons, forced to walk between ranks of guards while being beaten and kicked, and beaten in their testicles. A doctor in Ingushetia reported receiving a patient who had been detained at Mozdok who had severely swollen genitals and appeared to have been raped, as he suffered from internal injuries to the colon.
At the large Khankala military base outside Grozny detainees were often kept in overcrowded prisoner transport vehicles, even during the bitter cold of winter. A nineteen-year-old woman who was believed to be mentally retarded was raped at Khankala for three days by numerous soldiers at the end of January 2000. Men were severely beaten there, including during interrogations, and at least one was tortured with a soldering iron. In April, two badly disfigured corpses were recovered from Khankala, and it is likely that the two men were tortured and executed at the facility.
Abuses also took place at military encampments around Chechnya. Zhebir Turpalkhanov was detained in April 2000 at an encampment near Tsotsin-Yurt and severely beaten for five days during his detention; he died just hours after his release.
Detainees were also kept at a disused oil refinery near Tolstoy-Yurt, where abuses included threats of summary execution and beatings--some so severe that they led to broken ribs. At a former boarding school in Urus-Martan, one of three detention facilities in the town, detainees were forced to walk through a gauntlet of baton-wielding guards and were subjected to frequent beatings; one inmate was reportedly raped as recently as April 2000.
Upon arrest, detainees were often first taken to police stations before being transported to detention centers. Many detainees from Grozny went first to the Znamenskoye police station, where they were beaten and kicked upon arrival and in their cells. When detainees were transported from Znamenskoye, they were sometimes stacked on top of each other like logs, causing detainees at the bottom of the pile to lose consciousness. Human Rights Watch has also documented similar physical abuse and beatings at other police posts.
The Business of Release: Extortion and "Amnesties"
The majority of former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they were only released after their families had paid substantial bribes to their Russian captors and predatory intermediaries, ranging from 2,000 rubles to U.S. $5,000. In fact, bribes were demanded for release so often that in many cases, detention itself appears to have been motivated by the promise of financial gain, rather than by the need to identify rebel elements. One man detained by OMON troops near Komsomolskoye in late January 2000 was never turned over to investigative authorities; instead, his captors immediately opened negotiations with the family for his release.
The guilt or innocence of the detainee seem to have little impact on the extortion process, except on the amount of money involved: innocence alone is not enough to secure release, and even confirmed Chechen fighters can be bought out for the appropriate amount. In one documented case, the head of a village administration secured the release of a captured fighter for U.S. $5,000. In most cases, relatives are approached by middlemen preying on their desperation to extort large sums for the release of the detained relative.
Russian officials often refuse to return important identity documents to detainees upon release, or release detainees with documents identifying them as "amnestied fighters," even when involvement in armed activity was never established. This curtails the freedom of movement of the released detainee, as they are unable to travel through checkpoints for fear of rearrest, harassment, or other abuse. Detainees released without documents become virtual prisoners in their home districts.
Incommunicado Detention and "Disappearances"
Russian authorities withhold information about whom they have in custody, and do not allow detainees to communicate with their families, even when detained for months. As a result, relatives travel to detention facilities, desperately trying to establish the whereabouts of their loved ones. Many maintain a steady vigil outside the detention centers where they believe their relatives are kept, and constantly exchange information among themselves about other known detention facilities and lists of names of known detainees, smuggled out by those who are released.