One of the most prominent cases in an epidemic of abductions in Chechnya ended Thursday when seven relatives of the Russian region's former leader, Aslan Maskhadov, returned to their home village, according to Chechen prosecutors and the human rights group Memorial. Maskhadov was killed by Russian forces in March.
The seven, including Maskhadov's sister and two brothers, were seized at their homes in December. Human rights groups charged that their kidnapping was part of a pattern of Kremlin-backed Chechen forces targeting the relatives of known separatists.
One of the relatives told a Memorial representative that they were held in a small room at a military facility by Chechen-speaking guards, according to Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, a Memorial activist in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. "They look very weak physically and psychologically," Sokirianskaya said in a phone interview.
The relatives told Memorial that they were neither interrogated nor tortured during their captivity.
But the relatives, some of whom are elderly, said they were kept in a room and only let out to use the bathroom. The day before their release, they were allowed to wash for the first time since being taken, according to Sokirianskaya.
Their release may have been triggered by a marked deterioration in the health of one of Maskhadov's brothers, Sokirianskaya said.
Chechen deputy prosecutor Alexander Nikitin told the Russian news agency Interfax that his office, which opened a criminal investigation into the disappearance last January, was questioning the relatives. He provided no details on the detention except to confirm that the family members were home in Pervomaiskoye, near the regional capital, Grozny.
Another family member, a nephew of Maskhadov, was also detained in December, but his whereabouts surfaced after he was charged with being a member of an illegal armed group.
Human Rights Watch reported this year that an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 civilians had disappeared in Chechnya in the past five years, and that a majority of those abductions were carried out by Russian or Chechen security forces.
"The pattern of enforced disappearances in Chechnya has reached the level of a crime against humanity," the group said in a report in March. It charged that "not a single person has been held fully accountable for a 'disappearance' since the conflict began in 1999." This has created an atmosphere of "complete immunity" in Chechnya, it said.
In another report, Memorial charged that the Maskhadov family members were detained by security forces loyal to Chechnya's deputy prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. He is the son of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed by a bomb in May 2004.
Chechen officials denied the allegation and blamed Chechen rebels for the disappearance, as they routinely do for abductions.
During the September 2004 seizure of a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, Kadyrov called for the detention of the relatives of separatists, calling such a strategy "the law of the highlands."
The tactic received further support last October when Russia's prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, told the Russian parliament that "detaining a terrorist's relatives during a terrorist attack would undoubtedly help us save lives." He proposed legislation allowing "counter-hostage-taking," which, he said, would "open the terrorists' eyes."