Chechens Describe a House of Horrors

Witnesses Say Russians Killed, Tortured, Raped

By Sharon LaFraniere and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Date: July 9, 2000



For a former girls' orphanage, the Russian command post in this dusty Chechen town is a fearsome-looking place. Sandbags are piled high against the outside walls and stuffed into windows of the three-story brown brick building, and snipers lurk on the roof.

What goes on inside is even more disturbing, according to the town's residents and other witnesses. Ask Zemilkhan Elmurzayev, a slim, 20-year-old Chechen man who said he spent a week imprisoned there in May on suspicion of being a guerrilla rebel.

In a basement holding cell, he said, a group of 10 drunken soldiers cornered him and demanded that he confess. When he refused, the Russians mocked him for being "proud." Then they beat him into unconsciousness, revived him by dousing him with douses of water, and raped him for about two hours.

"I pleaded that this was not necessary. But they assaulted me over and over," Elmurzayev said in an interview two weeks ago. "I thought to myself, 'I will die here.' "

According to other witnesses, some Chechens have died. For six months or more, the command post has doubled as a detention center for Chechens suspected of siding with the Muslim militants battling Moscow for Chechnya's independence. A half-dozen former prisoners--interviewed here, in a nearby village and in the neighboring region of Ingushetia--describe the center as a horror house of severe beatings, rapes and occasional killings.

It is also a lucrative moneymaker for the Russian soldiers stationed here in the heart of the rebellious region, about 12 miles southeast of the capital, Grozny. One of the few ways for imprisoned men and women to escape the beatings is for their families to buy their freedom.

On a sunny Monday afternoon two weeks ago, knots of mothers and wives gathered outside the huge iron gates, trying desperately to broker the release of their relatives with the Russian soldiers. Freed prisoners said the price varies from $100 to as much as $1,000. Sometimes the final price is far higher. A 68-year-old former tractor driver said Russian soldiers stole $76,000 worth of his family's possessions, including two cars, while he was held captive.

The mistreatment of detainees, described by human rights groups as well as in witnesses' interviews, is only part of the toll on civilians of Russia's 10-month war in Chechnya. The war also has included at least three large-scale shootings of civilians, the worst of which occurred in Aldi on Feb. 5, plus an untold number of civilian deaths from months of artillery and aerial bombardment.

The U.S. and Western European governments were outraged over Russian human rights violations at the height of the conflict. But as attention has dwindled following Russia's capture of Grozny on Feb. 6, allegations of continued and systematic abuse and extortion at detention sites have gone all but ignored at official levels.

Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, asked to visit several detention centers in April, including Urus-Martan. But Russian officials, citing security and weather, took her to only one center in Grozny that held two female prisoners. Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee have visited a number of centers, but they conveyed most of their findings only to the Russian government.

For an upcoming report, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed almost three dozen people released from prisons and jails in and around Chechnya. Peter Bouckaert, a spokesman for the group, said the Russian government has "cleaned up" Chernikozovo, its largest and most notorious detention center for Chechens, but "the abuses have just moved to other centers."

Memorial, a Russian group with a strong human rights focus, has compiled a list of 300 missing prisoners, some of whom haven't been seen for six months. Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial's human rights arm, said "tortures, beatings, cruelty" there are "heightened by the Russians' sense of total impunity and the bitterness born of the war."

For their part, Russian officials say roundups and detention are necessary to quash an elusive enemy. Through ambushes and suicide attacks, rebels kill roughly 20 soldiers a week, almost as many as in the peak of the war. Last week's total was even higher: 61 servicemen dead, including two killed when a suicide driver crashed a truck laden with explosives into the Urus-Martan command post. The military is reacting to the attacks, as it frequently does, with roundups.

If Chechen civilians get caught up by mistake, Russian officials said, that is the price they pay in a war in which guerrillas blend into the civilian population. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander-in-chief of Russian Interior Ministry troops, attacked critics of the military's brutality while he was attending a funeral for Russian soldiers. "Let them come over here and look into the eyes of the mothers and fathers," he said.

Many Chechens say vicious treatment of prisoners appears only to lay the groundwork for more conflict. "The soldiers make fighters themselves, with their own bare hands," said Hoyamed Zuhayev, a 43-year-old Chechen who said he was released from the Urus-Martan center with four broken ribs and six missing teeth after his family gave the soldiers $400 worth of guns.

Moscow says it is fully capable of investigating mistreatment of civilians. Yet despite the lengthy record compiled by human rights groups, Vladimir Kanavalov, the Russian human rights commissioner, said in an interview that he has yet to confirm a single instance of abuse or corruption at the detention centers.

He acknowledges that Chechens may be afraid to tell him the truth. "We ask about whether they got medicine, the temperature of the cells, the food, whether they were forced to confess to someone else's crime. So far we have not received any information about torture or beatings," he said. The military prosecutor's office says it is prosecuting just three cases involving military crimes against Chechen civilians. In the most celebrated case, a colonel accused of raping and strangling a young Chechen girl may soon be amnestied, according to Russian media reports.

Kanavalov said that detention centers are under better control now than at the height of the war six months ago and that a system of laws and courts is beginning to emerge from the ruins. He said 1,176 Chechens have been imprisoned since the start of the war, and that a group of 29 lawyers is now active in the Russian-occupied parts of the republic.

Those figures, however, are incomplete. The number of prisoners includes only those detained in Justice Ministry prisons. Many more are held in the Interior Ministry's 18 sites, which include abandoned train cars, a poultry farm, a former coffee shop and a stadium, as well as Urus-Martan's converted orphanage. Also, the 29 lawyers work in only one town, Gudermes.

In the case of Chernikozovo, Moscow seems to have implicitly acknowledged its human rights problem by replacing the leadership. Torture of prisoners there came to the public eye partly via the reports of Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for the U.S.-government funded Radio Liberty who was detained and beaten there.

But allegations of similar treatment continue to emerge from other detention centers that feed into Chernikozovo, particularly from the basement holding cells at Urus-Martan.

Urus-Martan, with about 33,000 residents, is typical of Chechen towns in the mostly pacified northern and central regions. Some streets are impassable, many roofs are missing and faucets yield no water. But candy and soda are for sale at kiosks, and the buses are full of passengers. Shooting is heard, but only sporadically. Most residents spend their days trying to sweep the war's rubble out of their yards and resurrect their damaged homes.

The former orphanage sits close to a muddy river, across from a run-down school with bullet-holed window panes. The dirt yard is strung with jagged tin cans, and fortified with giant logs and concrete barricades.

Two weeks ago, Zima Badayeva waited all day outside the black iron gates strung with spiked wire, hoping for news of her 24-year-old son, Jambula. In her small black purse, she carried his birth certificate and other documents, carefully wrapped in plastic. "They say after a week, maybe they will know something," she said, her face stained with tears. "But I am afraid after a week, there will be nothing left of him."

Zuhayev, the former prisoner who was released after his family gave guns to the Russian soldiers, said in an interview last week in the nearby village of Stari Atagi that a man in a cell near his was beaten to death in January. He died after three days, his legs broken, Zuhayev alleged.

Evidence of cruelty is limited to such anecdotal accounts of former prisoners, sometimes buttressed by their medical records. Including those interviewed by Memorial and Human Rights Watch, 15 Chechen men have alleged they were beaten or raped there, and several said they saw corpses being dragged away.

They all blame their treatment there on Interior Ministry soldiers, known as OMON, from the city of Penza, about 350 miles south of Moscow. Elmurzayev, the Chechen youth who said he was victimized by 10 soldiers, was brought in on May 6. He said the soldiers first prodded his anus with a rifle. He was handcuffed, thrown on a bed and repeatedly assaulted.

"I lost consciousness over and over, and they threw water on me. I sometimes lost control of my body," he said.

On May 13, he was released during an "amnesty," he said, but only after his mother paid $300 to his captors. He said he recovered from his injuries in a hospital in Nazran, a large town in Ingushetia west of Chechnya. A medic there confirmed that Elmurzayev had spent two weeks at the clinic being treated for trauma.

Jamal Movtayev, a gangly man of 45 with a shock of black hair, was detained in Urus-Martan for three days the same week. He said a Russian man falsely accused him of holding him hostage. Movtayev was held with about nine others in a 3-by-12-foot cell, with a single small wooden bench to sleep on.

On a broken chair in his dirt yard last week, he displayed the X-rays taken later of his broken foot, and the medical report on his two broken ribs. His wife told a female interpreter that his genitals were badly bruised, and he said he still feels pain from his kidneys. He spent six days in the Urus-Martan hospital.

"They forced us to crawl on our knees, like a dog," he said. "There were six or seven huge men there, and they beat us with gun stocks, feet and fists, mainly in the kidneys and on the chest. This happened every night, and their superiors closed their eyes to it. After the first night, I could no longer walk."

"They beat us because we are Chechens," he said. "If you are Chechen, you are a bandit to them. They see no difference."

Age was no defense for Suliman Tasuyev, a 68-year-old former tractor driver with short white hair, one drooping eyelid and a booming voice. He and his 35-year-old son, Magomed-Haji, were rounded up with about four dozen other men from their homes in Stari Atagi and taken to Urus-Martan in late January. The soldiers lined the men up against a wall and demanded that they hand over their gold rings and pry out their gold teeth, he said. Then they beat them.

"They were breaking ribs," Tasuyev said. "They were breaking bones. I was shouting, 'I am a 70-year-old man! What are you doing, you bastard?' And then one of them climbed on my back and started jumping."

Anderbek Bakayev, a hospital surgeon in Stari Atagi who treated Tasuyev after his release, said several of his ribs appeared to be broken. Of the other civilians detained at Urus-Martan, he said, "almost all of them suffered injuries." Tasuyev would not say how he was freed, but his son said his own release cost the family about $1,000.

That wasn't all. The elder Tasuyev has sent the prosecutor's office a list of $76,000 worth of possessions he says soldiers took out through his family compound's 10-foot-tall, hand-carved wooden gates. It includes a 1997 Mitsubishi sedan, a 1994 Isuzu, three video cameras, a mobile telephone, a television set, a chain saw and a mink coat.

Even those who aren't held at the Urus-Martan command post are subject to the vagaries of the soldiers stationed in the town. Eleza Temirsultanova, a 19-year-old mentally disabled woman who has epilepsy, disappeared from her home on Jan. 24. Her mother, Abba Temirsultanova, followed the footprints of her black galoshes into a muddy field. There she found Eleza's blue-patterned socks.

Dressed in a blue housecoat with pink hearts, Eleza listened to her mother talk last week from a seat in the corner of the dining room. Her head was down, her heavy brows knitted into a frown. Her tongue protruded against her teeth. Prompted by her mother, she said all she could remember was that the soldiers beat her, threatened to kill her and imprisoned her.

A woman who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that Eleza was repeatedly raped at Khankala, a major Russian military camp outside Grozny. The woman, who was held at the base with Eleza, said soldiers pulled the young woman out of a tent three times at night. She said she heard Eleza screaming and saw her genitals covered in blood when she came back. Her clothes were so badly torn that the soldiers gave her military fatigues to wear, the woman said.

Eleza's mother finally located her on Feb. 11 at a hospital in Mozdok. "I was so glad to have found her," said her mother. Eleza showed no emotion at all, she said.

Such tales of rape by Russian soldiers are common. Murat Akhmetov, a dark muscular youth interviewed earlier this month in Nazran, said drunken soldiers raped him repeatedly after he arrived at the Piatigorsk prison earlier this year. "I still wake up screaming," he said. "I wanted to hit back, but to do that meant death."

Some civilians have ended up dead, such as Arbi Uvaisovich. A fat, friendly man of 32, Uvaisovich frequently bought gasoline and food from Russian servicemen in Stari Atagi. On Jan. 27, the soldiers showed up at his home to take his new Volvo. "That's our car," a family member protested. "It's your car, but we have the keys," the soldier responded.

Suddenly realizing Uvaisovich and three other relatives were missing, the family mounted a search. In vain. Two months ago, they discovered Uvaisovich's car for sale at an outdoor market in another town.

On June 15, shortly after the Russian army abandoned its camp site on the outskirts of their hamlet, a shepherd boy's dog found a hand sticking up in the grassy field.

Villagers uncovered the decomposed remains of the four men. They were buried atop one another, with a thin layer of dirt between them.

Issadi Uvaisovich said his brother Arbi's arms were broken, his chest crushed, legs shot up and chin blown away. His wife said his genitals were cut off.

His sister Maliko had one question.

"Will the people who killed him be found and measures be taken?" she asked.

Williams reported from Nazran and Achkoi-Martan, Russia.


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