Inside the 'Hell' of Chernokozovo

On the eve of the Oct. 30 European Union-Russia summit, Human Rights Watch has released a report detailing the cycle of torture and extortion faced by thousands of Chechens whom Russian forces have detained in Chechnya. We have called on European states to file a case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights for these and other abuses committed by Russian soldiers during the war in Chechnya.

The 99-page report, titled "Welcome to Hell," describes how Russian troops have detained thousands of Chechens on suspicion of collaboration with rebel fighters. Many of them were detained arbitrarily, with no evidence of wrongdoing. Guards at detention centers systematically beat Chechen detainees, some of whom have also been raped or subjected to other forms of torture. Most were released only after their families paid large bribes to Russian officials. To date, Russian authorities have launched no credible and transparent effort to investigate these abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice.

"Welcome to hell" is how guards at the Chernokozovo detention facility would greet detainees, before forcing them to undergo a hail of blows by baton-wielding guards.

"These are not just abuses of the past," said Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Even today, any Chechen civilian is at risk of arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse at the hands of Russian troops."

Chechens who do not have proper identity papers, who share a surname with a Chechen commander, who are thought to have relatives who are fighters, or who simply "look" like fighters, continue to be detained and abused on a daily basis in their communities or at Chechnya’s hundreds of checkpoints. Many "disappear" for months as Russian officials keep them in incommunicado detention. Some are eventually released when relatives pay a bribe. Others never come back.

Fear of detention has prevented tens of thousands of internally displaced persons from returning to their homes in Chechnya. It has also confined those who have remained inside Chechnya, particularly young men, to their homes or communities. There is a lot to fear: By the end of May 2000, the Interior Ministry claimed that more than 10,000 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." Arrests continued throughout Chechnya as the Human Rights Watch report went to press.

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 toward fleeing civilians, particularly toward young males. Men are 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 Watch 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 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 Feb. 5, 2000.

The EU has sharply criticized Russia’s actions in Chechnya. It sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights urging Russia to launch a national commission of inquiry that would establish accountability for abuse. Six months after the resolution’s adoption, the Russian government has failed to launch a credible investigation into human rights abuse in Chechnya, including torture at detention centers. So far, the EU has taken no steps to press Russia to form the commission.

"The EU has given Russia more than enough time to launch a credible investigation into abuses in Chechnya," Denber said. "If the EU wants to retain its credibility on human rights issues, it should act now."

The report closely scrutinizes abuse at the Chernokozovo detention facility, which became infamous for torture in early 2000, and then underwent a massive cleanup after an outcry by the media and international community. The report also documents abuse in facilities at Pyatigorsk, Stavropol, Urus-Martan, the Mozdok and Khankala military bases and others.

At several detention centers, baton-wielding guards formed a human gauntlet and forced incoming detainees to run through. At least one man, Aindi Kovtorashvili, died as a result of gauntlet-style beatings.

Human Rights Watch researchers also gathered testimony from several former detainees about rape and sexual assault of both men and women. A number of former detainees also gave detailed accounts of the injuries they sustained to their ribs, liver, kidneys, testicles and feet from prolonged beatings.

Most former detainees interviewed for the report were released only after their families had paid substantial bribes ranging from $75 to $5,000 to their Russian captors or predatory intermediaries. Such bribes were demanded so often that, in many cases, detention itself appeared 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 seems 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 $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 freedom of movement of the released detainee, as they are unable to travel through the checkpoints for fear of rearrest, harassment or other abuse. Detainees released without documents become virtual prisoners in their home districts.

In February 2000, delegations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited detention centers in Chechnya. Following its visits, the committee explicitly requested Russian authorities to investigate allegations of abuse at Chernokozovo and other facilities.

It is unclear, though, whether the Russian government has done so. Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to provide details regarding any such investigations. Human Rights Watch also called on the Russian government to make public the committee’s reports on its February and April 2000 trips to Chechnya. Under committee rules of confidentiality, only the government under investigation can make reports public.

Human Rights Watch is a private, New York-based organization that conducts systematic investigations of human-rights abuses in some 70 countries. The complete text of "Welcome to Hell" can be found here on the Human Rights Watch web site.

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