A Cruel Picture of Russian Camps
Chechen Detainees Report Beatings
By Daniel Williams
Former prisoners, interviewed in separate locations, described masked guards delivering repeated blows with rubber truncheons and sometimes with metal bars or hammers. Some cited rapes of male and female prisoners. At a prison in Chernokozovo--a closed filtration camp where rebel suspects are "filtered" from the mass of detainees--beatings were said to begin the moment prisoners arrived.
"The guards hit me and said, 'What, you never learned to crawl?' " said Ruslan, 21, who was detained by Russian forces on Jan. 16 and taken to Chernokozovo, where he said he was forced to crawl to his interrogation sessions. "They said I would leave there half a man."
Human Rights Watch, the only international organization systematically probing abuses by Russian forces and Chechen rebels, has begun to collect testimony from detainees trickling into Ingushetia, a neighboring region to the west of Chechnya. "A truly disturbing picture is emerging," said Peter Bouckaert, a Human Rights Watch researcher working in Ingushetia.
The stories add to a picture of abuses by troops and police in Russian-controlled zones of Chechnya. For weeks, refugees have reported looting, bribe-taking, murder and summary executions in several locations, including the capital city, Grozny. The Russian government denies the allegations, which they dismiss as "terrorist propaganda."
It is not possible to independently verify the latest complaints, which center largely on the temporary camp at Chernokozovo, a town that lies north of the Terek River in Chechnya. Access to Chechnya is severely restricted by the Russians. Officially sanctioned trips take place under military and intelligence escort.
The Kremlin has brushed aside requests for international access to Chechnya from the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to Chechen prisoners.
In apparent response to harsh international criticism of abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya, acting President Vladimir Putin today appointed Vladimir Kalamanov, the head of Russia's migration service, as his own human rights monitor. Kalamanov's oversight of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia was sharply criticized in human rights circles. As the war raged, the migration service denied Chechen refugees entry to tent cities in Ingushetia to force them to return to Chechnya--a violation of U.N. guidelines for the treatment of internally displaced persons.
The Russians have been making stepped-up sweeps of Chechen towns and villages looking for rebels who escaped Grozny during the guerrilla withdrawal two weeks ago. During the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, the Russians also set up detention camps for rebel suspects. Many reports of torture and beatings surfaced then. Chechnya won de facto independence in 1996, but its postwar recovery soon was undermined by warlords, kidnapping and banditry.
Ruslan, the former prisoner, said he was detained at a checkpoint near the northern Chechen town of Znamenskaya and spent three weeks imprisoned in Chernokozovo. In an interview, he said he and other prisoners transported by truck from Znamenskaya were beaten upon disembarking inside the camp. They were forced to run a gantlet of 20 uniformed men wielding truncheons.
Inside the prison, Ruslan said he and 11 other inmates were forced to crouch, hands behind their necks, while they were beaten. Later, Ruslan was taken to a larger room, where he was kicked by guards. "It was like a soccer game, and I was the ball," he said.
On the second day, he suffered back bruises that still cause him to hunch over in pain. Other men suffered broken ribs and fingers, he said. Sometimes, guards sprayed tear gas into the cells and played loud music all night to inhibit sleep. Guards forced the inmates to strip, and looted clothing that caught their fancy.
Ruslan said he was presented with prepared statements confessing his participation in the Chechen resistance. He refused to sign. He was beaten on the way back to his cell. Beatings occurred each day of his detention, Ruslan said.
Ruslan said his mother negotiated his release and paid 4,000 rubles, the equivalent of about $150, as a bribe to an officer named Sadolnikov. Upon release, Ruslan signed a paper saying he had suffered no harm in captivity. Guards refused to return his passport and other documents they confiscated.
Ali, 24, said he was detained on Jan. 17, after returning to Chechnya from more than a month's stay in Ingushetia. He was on his way to Znamenskaya to gather news of his parents, who had remained in Grozny. On Jan. 19, he was taken to Chernokozovo. He, too, faced the gantlet of nightsticks.
Inside the prison, he was stripped and beaten, and also hit on the back of the head during interrogation. When Ali was forced to crawl, guards taunted him, saying, "The faster you crawl, the less you'll get hit," he said.
Ali told Human Rights Watch that he heard women's voices begging guards not to touch them. A young man was pulled out of his cell and raped, Ali said, and guards told the man, "From now on, you'll be called Fatima"--a common woman's name among Chechens.
Ali said he was released after a relative paid a 1,000-ruble bribe to a camp commander.
Beatings also appear to take place at other locations. Reswan, 19, was picked up at a military checkpoint Jan. 20 near Alkhan-Yurt, west of Grozny, and taken south to Urus-Martan. There, he was kept in a cellar and beaten by kontraktniki, Russian soldiers who sign up for temporary duty in Chechnya.
Later, he was trucked to Chernokozovo, where he shared a cell with 15 other men and was beaten and kicked, he said. He was ransomed two weeks later by his mother for 2,000 rubles, but given no documents showing he had been freed. "I had to walk out of Chechnya at night. I can be captured any time again," he told a reporter at a house in Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia, where he is hiding.
"I don't want to go over there again. Once is enough," he said.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company