About Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina is Senior Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
Articles by Tanya Lokshina
A heavy, stifling heat envelops the Caucasus in midsummer. During the day the sun fries your brain, your throat itches from the hot dust, and the night brings no relief, only hordes of maddened mosquitoes.
It happened on a Friday. Armed men in camouflage uniforms drove up to Nazir's house in a small village in Chechnya's mountainous Vedeno district. They turned Nazir's home upside down. Nazir had some wooden boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. Nazir was scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge of the large group, approached him, and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house."
Nazir's nephews have been allegedly involved in Chechnya's still smoldering insurgency for almost a decade, and Nazir knew that he was now going to pay the price for failing to convince them to surrender.
To be fair, the serviceman Nazir thought to be in charge understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from higher up. The house was to be burned. But Nazir proposed a compromise. He said to the commander, "An excavator operator lives nearby. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him?" Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall that was less than one meter from his neighbor's house. Then Nazir's house was set on fire. Everyone, including Nazir, stood by and watched the flames rise.
Nazir and his family are now homeless. At least two dozen other families in different districts of Chechnya have had their houses torched in 2008 and 2009 by local Chechen law enforcement personnel to punish them because their relatives are allegedly insurgents, and to coerce the insurgents to surrender. This report documents these episodes of collective punishment.
Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya has subsided and the capital, Grozny, has been largely rebuilt. However, abuses such as torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial executions persist (albeit on a smaller scale), and impunity for past and ongoing abuses is rampant. The perpetrators of ongoing violations are mainly law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighboring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically. The insurgency has a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Working toward those objectives, insurgents have been using a variety of violent tactics, including killings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.
The perpetrators of these and other crimes must be held accountable under the law and in accordance with international fair trial standards. However, unlawful tactics used by insurgents can in no way justify the use of similar tactics by government forces fighting against the insurgency, particularly burning of houses and other types of persecution against families of alleged rebel fighters.
Human Rights Watch is aware of 25 cases of punitive house burning that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel between June 2008 and March 2009 in seven districts of Chechnya: ten in Kurchaloi, six in Shali, four in Vedeno, two in Naur, and one each in Shatoi, Achkhoi-Martan, and Grozny districts. Also, just several days prior to the release of this report Human Rights Watch learned of yet another, most recent case of house-burning. On June 18, around 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen reportedly burned two homes belonging to elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, in the Gudermes district.
All the affected families, whose homes were burned, have among their close relatives alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home "from the woods" and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so. Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and therefore appeared to have been motivated by retribution.
Notably, in 2008 high-level Chechen officials, including President Kadyrov, made public statements explicitly stating that the insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. While such statements may not constitute direct instructions for law enforcement agents to destroy houses of insurgents' families, they encourage such actions by police and security personnel by sending a strong message that lawless, punitive actions will be tolerated or condoned.
Thirteen episodes of punitive house-burning are documented in detail in this report. These cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel-often masked-arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.
The assailants torched the houses methodically and unhurriedly. They looked around the inside of the house, piled furniture together, put easily flammable objects on top, doused gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. They would stay for up to an hour watching the fire spread, to make sure the residents or their neighbors did not attempt to put it out before the house was well ablaze.
The victims were generally told in clear terms that complaining about the house-burning would lead to further repercussions. Consequently, only in three cases known to Human Rights Watch did victims file complaints with the authorities. In another three cases the victims agreed to have Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO working in the North Caucasus, raise their cases with competent authorities. At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness. At this writing not a single criminal case into the allegations of house-burning in Chechnya has been opened by the law enforcement authorities.
The Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. Indeed, in more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Russia responsible for serious violations in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told Human Rights Watch that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm. This situation cannot be tolerated, and calls for prompt and effective measures.
Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to collective punishment practices, including house-burnings, against families of alleged insurgents, and ensure meaningful accountability for perpetrators of these and other human rights violations. Accountability includes ensuring effective implementation of ECtHR rulings on Chechnya cases. Other governments, in particular European Union states and the United States, should use multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues to call on Russia to stop collective punishment practices, and put an end to impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya.
This report is based primarily on field research conducted in close cooperation with Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, in March and April 2009 during two Human Rights Watch missions to Chechnya. In the course of these missions, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited and photographed house-burning sites and interviewed 37 individuals, including owners and former residents of homes destroyed by house-burning, and witnesses of the house-burnings. We also interviewed 14 human rights activists, lawyers, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. Field research was conducted in the Achkhoi-Martan, Kurchaloi, Naur, Shatoi, Shali, and Vedeno districts of Chechnya, where the burnings had taken place, as well as in Grozny, where some victims, witnesses, activists, and officials were interviewed. Several interviews were done in Moscow or by phone from Moscow. Sites of house-burnings were identified based on information received from Chechnya-based human rights activists as well as from some victims of house-burnings who happened to be aware of other similar cases. All interviews were conducted in Russian by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.
Also, Human Rights Watch examined official documents, prosecutor's office decrees, public statements by Chechen officials, analytical reports published by Russian human rights groups, and media accounts. Transcripts of televised statements by President Kadyrov and several other high-level Chechen officials were translated by a native speaker of Chechen.
The present report documents only those house-burning cases for which we were able to interview victims and witnesses to the burnings and make our own site visits.
The vast majority of those interviewed for this report were deeply concerned about possible repercussions for their families and asked Human Rights Watch researchers not to use their real names. Consequently, we chose to assign pseudonyms to victims and witnesses quoted in the report who gave us their names (the pseudonyms were chosen randomly from a comprehensive list of Chechen names at a specialized website http://www.n-a-m-e-s.info/dat_imya/chechenu.htm).
Few people really understand what is happening there. It is hard to get an objective picture of events in such a complex place, home to more than 30 different ethnic groups speaking many different languages. In fact, it is all but impossible, even more so when the media propagate myths that are often completely absurd.
Gudben - the myth
Gudben, a village in the Karabudakhkent District, has something of a reputation. People outside and inside Dagestan say that it is a ‘wahhabi' village. They'll tell you all sorts of stories about what goes on there. You get the idea that the village has been completely taken over by Islamic radicals, that they've more or less imposed sharia law there, as they did in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi before the outbreak of the second Chechen war. They say that the women are all hidden behind veils and girls do not go to school, while the boys study in the Koranic school, where they are turned into future martyrs for Islam. At any rate, they're supposedly ready to take to the forests. Indeed, they say that Islamic fundamentalism has got such a foothold in Gudben that the doors of people's houses have two handles - one for men and one for women. It's not for nothing that a counterterrorist operation has been underway there since March.
Islam does indeed play an important part in the life of Gudben. It is as an old village with deep-rooted religious traditions. Even during the Soviet years, local people stubbornly defended their right to believe and pray openly. The Dagestani authorities complained to Moscow that, "in the village of Gudben, in 1956, a group of religious fanatics, acting without permission, opened a mosque", and that "it is very hard to stamp out the relics of the past in people's minds and lives: the religious authorities forbid the young people from joining the komsomol and constantly undermine the communist ideology". (http://www.chernovik.net/news/245/MONOTHEOS/2007/10/12/3444)
People from Gudben were among the first Russian Muslims to make the hajj in the early 1990s. Salafist preachers were active in the village, and it certainly had its share of aggressive fundamentalists, though there can't have been too many of them, because when Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, they were swiftly dealt with by their own fellow villagers. The villagers gave them a beating, kicked them out of the madresa and made them promise that they would not under any circumstances help Basayev and his friends. In other words, the radicals were not the dominant force in the village.
So how is it that 10 years later there is no secular education and even door handles are segregated according to sex? Or is this just hearsay?
Gudben - the reality
It's hard to say who thought up the story about the door handles. The doors in Gudben are extremely ordinary, with just one handle. As for the women, they are not hidden behind burqas, but wear long dresses and cover their hair with a scarf thrown over the shoulder. You don't see anyone smoking in the streets, and you certainly don't see anyone drunk. People here are serious about their religion, they stick to the rules, and pray five times a day.
There are over 12,000 people living in the village, and the locals say that four villagers have gone to join the insurgents in the forest. Just four, not hundreds or even dozens. When the ‘counterterrorist' operation began in March, the security forces, worried by the news that Gudben had been taken over by wahhabi fundamentalists, began picking out families who were not sending their children to school. They came up with a total of around 30 children who were not receiving any secular education. This is not a good thing of course. But to put it in perspective, Gudben is a big village, the families all have many children, and 30 children is a drop in the ocean.
As for the question of education, the real problem is not that there are children who don't go to school, but that even those who do go to school have no chance of getting a decent education. The teachers are recent graduates of the very same local school with precious little experience. They speak to the children in Dargin, but the textbooks are in Russian. The children learn to read out the syllables, but they don't actually understand what they're reading. They learn basic arithmetic, and that is about as far it goes.
The better-off families try and send their boys, especially their older sons, to boarding school or to relatives in the towns of Makhachkala, Buinak and Kaspiisk. If the boys have certificates proving that they've had nine years of schooling, schools in the towns usually reluctantly accept them into the sixth year and try to help them catch up, though they are probably more like third year students. Village families don't send their daughters away to study. There is not enough money to go around, and they need helping hands at home. While this is certainly sad, the same is true of many villages in the North Caucasus.
Gudben is an ordinary village, old, with narrow winding streets that not every car can manage. But the streets here were not designed for cars. It has picturesque stone houses and a huge cemetery on the hill, from where you get an excellent view of the mosque, the same mosque that Gudben's fearless rebels built against Soviet atheism in the late 1950s. The village women and girls look exotic to urban-dwelling outsiders with their colourful headscarves and traditional clothes. It is a picturesque Dargin village high up in the mountains, a place with its own customs. The local life is full of interest. It would be good to make a documentary about it, to be able to show the daily lives of these people who want only to be left in peace to follow their traditions without the upset caused by endless ‘special operations'.
Beard = wahhabi
"Young men with beards can't show their faces here", said a strongly-built man of around 40, shaking his head. "The security people, if they see a beard, that's it - they're taken into custody straight away. They don't touch the old people, but the young ones... best not to go out. People here prayed during the Soviet years. They prayed in secret, but they kept the religion alive. After the old regime collapsed, we started travelling all around Dagestan, preaching Islam, teaching Muslims who'd lost their knowledge. We had up to 400 people during the holy Ramadan month. We found mosques that had been turned into storehouses, cleaned them, and people began coming to them again...
"Later, at the end of the 1990s, this talk of ‘wahhabis' began, some sort of enemy. People became afraid of receiving us. Now life's become impossible. I get called a wahhabi, but I've not held a gun since I was in the Soviet army. I simply want to follow my beliefs. Yes, I practise pure Islam. Muslims need nothing except what the Prophet God sent and what's written in the books. But here we have fundamentalists like me, and traditionalists who follow the sheikhs. We all pray together, all go to the same mosque. It's shameful to say, but I don't wear a beard, though I should. I should be setting an example. But the security people would only cause me grief. Look what happened to Saihadji Saihadjiev. He's the same age as me, not even a young man, and now he's left seven children behind. Who is going to bring them up? Two others were killed along with him. And me, I want to raise my children..."
On October 21, 2008, just 10 kilometres away from Gudben, there was a clash between the insurgents and security forces. Five police officers, including a local policeman from Gudben, were wounded. The security forces surrounded the village and over the next four days detained about 40 local people. They were then sent to police stations in Kaspiisk and Makhachkala. There, they were questioned about the insurgents. Many were beaten, threatened, but they were released fairly quickly.
The villagers thought the incident was over. But on October 27, three Gudben residents, Saihadji Saihadjiev, Nustap Aburakhmanov, and Akhmed Hadjimagomedov, ‘disappeared'. Forty-four year-old Saihadjiev went that evening to pray at the mosque and never came home. Hadjimagomedov collected his daughter from school, then went to the mosque, and disappeared too. Abdurakhmanov was in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, at the time. He was abducted there. In all three cases relatives soon found eyewitnesses to confirm that the three men were taken away by law enforcement officials. On October 28, the families were told that the three men were killed during a ‘special operation' in Dagestan's Sergokalinsk district, while putting up resistance to law enforcement officers. The families' requests for the bodies to be handed back to them were rejected at first. Under Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not handed over to relatives. But Saihadjiev's father turned out to have connections in high places and after two difficult days, he and the other two families were able to get back their sons' bodies. They could see that they had been subjected to torture.
Magomed Saihadjiev is 76. Taking his guests up to the second storey of his house he sits down, upright, his silver-white beard neatly combed. His wife Kistoman sits on the stairs, watching attentively, not saying a word, only shedding silent tears from time to time, shyly covering her eyes with the edge of her white headscarf.
"My son left the house and drove to the mosque", Magomed says. "He entered the mosque. There was a white car waiting beside the mosque. When he came out again, the law enforcement people took him away. There were witnesses. We didn't have a clue about what was going on. There was just this report on the news, this special operation, three insurgents killed, and Saihadji among them. If it hadn't been for my connections we'd never have got his body back. He would've been buried somewhere and we'd never have known what happened. But they ended up having to hand over his body. When I saw what they'd done to my son... One of my relatives, Abdula Rasudlov, is a doctor. We called him, got him to examine the body and explain what he saw, and we filmed it all on video. I'll put it on for you to watch now..."
Magomed put on the recording. The screen showed a horribly tortured body accompanied by the doctor's calm and even voice. Broken bones, burns, bruising...
"We went to the prosecutors. We have a lawyer too... But there's no hope here. Our lawyer says that if we take the case to the European Court of Human Rights we would definitely win, because we have all the proof. But I heard this would take a long time... Do you know how long we'd have to wait, a year, two years? What, five whole years? Isn't there any way to speed things up? Please try to do something. You saw yourselves what they did to him? And for what? Saihadji spent his whole life doing nothing but good for others. He never caused anyone any harm. And then there was this shootout with the police, our local policeman got caught in it too. Then they came and took him and the two others away by way of punishment... Innocent people! He's left four sons behind. How are they going to manage now?"
Saihadji's youngest son is two years and eight months old. His relatives say that the boy spends whole days sitting on the windowsill, waiting for his father, asking when papa will come home.
On the village outskirts, the big cemetery on the hill offers a wonderful view of the mosque, that same mosque which the villagers opened without permission more than fifty years ago. Saihadji is buried near the cemetery fence. His mother often visits the grave with her little grandson. While his grandmother prays, the little boy runs around, hiding behind the white stone gravestones.
He doesn't yet understand the meaning of death.
There are terrible traffic jams in the center of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. The main form of transport is shuttle taxis. Drivers competing for clients cut each other off, overtake in the opposing lane and pretty much ignore all traffic rules. There are way too many shuttle taxis here, but the driver pays a kickback to the city authorities for each "trip," so the powers that be have little interest in reducing the number of shuttle taxis to a relatively sensible figure. Everyone here knows this, with the possible exception of newborn babies.
Corruption in Dagestan long ago reached astounding proportions. The power structures seem to have merged fully with the criminal world. The sandy beaches remain wild and abandoned because starting any large-scale project is simply pointless: they'll ask for money from you before you start making any kind of profit. This seemingly heavenly spot -- the warm sea washes the shore and the beauty of the mountains takes your breath away -- is shivering in poverty and dust.
The traffic is as chaotic and aggressive as the city itself. When they hear the complaints -- "No one drives this appallingly badly anywhere in the Caucasus!"-- Makhachkala residents sniff, though not without pride. They need, after all, to have at least one thing to be proud of.
The locals don't like their city - it is sprawling, clamorous and disfigured by clumsy, ugly buildings. They constantly curse it and their plight in general. There are no jobs to be had. Women make do by selling things. Men work as drivers. They can also go into law enforcement. The pay there is good, but this is a job one might want to think twice about - police officers are being shot by the dozen.
A young dark-haired taxi-driver shakes his head: "I served on the police force for four years and then gave it up. Nine of my friends were killed. They have families and small children... It's better to be a driver. It's enough to live on, and that's OK: I don't want my children to be orphans."
"Who killed them, Akhmed?"
He takes a drag on his a cigarette and sighs: "Supposedly Wahhabis.... Although who knows. They blame everything on Wahhabis here, even ordinary crimes. If you're an officer they ask you to catch Wahhabis and make them confess.... That means you have to beat them. And you look at this guy and think, he also has a family."
Akhmed's mobile phone rings. He picks it up, listens and answers something in Avar - something unprintable, judging his tone- and smiles guiltily: "You know, you'll get to your destination more quickly on foot. They've found another bomb around here and the neighboring streets have been cordoned off. We'll be stuck for another hour at least. So, today there's a bomb. Yesterday an officer was shot literally on that corner. And that's how it is every day."
The war between the "Wahhabis" and "authorities" has become an essential part of everyday life. It's obvious who the "authorities" are: officers of the Interior Ministry and FSB. But the "Wahhabis," or "Wahs" or "Vovchiks," as the slang goes, are a much more complicated matter.
In Dagestan Wahhabism is effectively regarded as terrorism, and even, uniquely for Russia, prohibited by law. This law was passed by the local parliament back in 1999, after the incursion by Shamil Basaev and his followers, which marked the beginning of the "Second Chechen War". In other words, Wahhabis are perceived as armed Islamic radicals who want to destroy secular government and create a Shariah state in the Caucasus. To the government, they are the chief natural enemy of the state.
On the other hand, there are actually a large number of people who are followers of "pure Islam" (researchers on the issue call them Salafis) in Dagestan. These are Muslims who preach a return to the five pillars of Islam and do not accept worship of Sufi sheikhs as intermediaries between Muslims and Allah. They are generally not hard to spot, as they have beards and pray at their special mosques. The vast majority of these people do not, of course, roam the mountains with automatic weapons. They lead ordinary lives. But they are also branded as enemies and harshly persecuted.
The situation is aggravated by a preexisting conflict between the Salafis and the "traditional" Sufi Muslims ("Tariqahs"). In Dagestan acting Sufi sheikhs have many "murids" in government and in law-enforcement enforcement agencies, including in high positions. A murid is a follower obliged to obey his sheikh, and, as experts have noted, the sheikhs do not hesitate to use high-ranking murids to suppress their religious opponents. Being a salafi in Dagestan is dangerous. Men who make themselves visible as Salafis by wearing Muslim clothes and long beards create such a threat for themselves and their families that few of the followers of "pure Islam" dare to take the risk.
A dark yard on the dirty outskirts of Makhachkala. It's around 10 in the evening. It's so dark you could easily break your leg in a pothole, and finding the right door is almost impossible. But one of the doors opens, a boy looks out and gestures me to come in. You can't see anything in the entrance, but the lift is unexpectedly working. At the entrance to the apartment there are two girls, ages 7 or 8, with long dresses to the ground. Their pale, serious faces are framed by hijabs - one white, the other blue. They politely whisper hello, and look at me intensely, not responding to my smile. From the other end of the corridor, their mother emerges with a tiny child in her arms. Her clothes reveal only her hands and her face - from her chin to her eyebrows. She invites me into the room.
It is almost completely empty. There is a rug on the floor and a lonely plastic stool in the corner. A tall, thin man with a short beard sits on the rug, leaning against the wall. His eyes are sunken and he has a tubercular cough. His swarthy, yellowish face is thin and, despite his exhaustion, he looks quite young. Eldar is 25. An hour ago there was an attempt to abduct him. This was evidently the "sixth department" -- employees of the Extremism and Criminal Terrorism Directorate of the Dagestan Interior Ministry. They won't leave Eldar alone because he is a "Wahhabi." Eldar looks at the guests through half-closed eyes, mumbles a greeting and turns to his wife: "Bring us some tea."
Eldar Navruzov had in fact already been abducted, just over a year ago. On the morning of March 13, 2008, armed men in camouflage attacked him on the street, dragged him into their car, put a sack over his head, planted a hand grenade in his pocket and drove him to the "sixth department." There Eldar was beaten and tortured for over a day, until he admitted that he was part of a gang of one Vadim Butdaev - Eldar said he found out only later who this Vadim was - and had been attacking policemen. Three days later, a lawyer was finally able to get to Eldar, and he retracted the testimony he had given under torture. But he spent around 11 months in prison on remand, until the charges of attacking employees of the law-enforcement bodies and organizing a criminal society were dropped for complete lack of evidence.
Eldar was released in February this year, and found a job at a building site. He thought he was being followed - he noticed cars driving around outside his home and suspicious people following him. But the charge against him of illegally possessing and carrying a weapon had not been dropped, so he was only freed from custody after he gave a written undertaking not to leave the city. When he will be released from this order, God only knows.
On the evening of April 22 at around 9 p.m. Eldar was returning home from work. He was on the mobile to his wife, Aisha, telling her he would be home soon, when a silver 99 Lada with Dagestan number plates drove up to him. Two people jumped out of the car and shouted at him to stop. Eldar ran toward his home, which was very close, shouting to his wife that he was being kidnapped again. The car overtook him, hitting his left leg, but he kept running, because he knew what would happen if he fell down. Another car was waiting for him in the yard, right in front of the entrance. It was also silver and had tinted windows. Some men tried to drag him into the car. He fought them off, screaming at the top of his voice: "I'm being kidnapped!" The neighbours looked out of their windows. Aisha, along with another family who was visiting her at the time, flung open the door and grabbed hold of Eldar. They also started shouting. This was too much noise and too many witnesses for the "officers," so they abandoned their victim, got into their cars and drove away.
"Until the next time..." Eldar coughs, sipping some dark infusion from a cup. He is curing his tuberculosis with "sunna", i.e. prayers and herbs. He doesn't trust secular medicine. "Inshallah..." Eldar continues, "It was probably the sixth department again. They are the only ones who can kidnap people like me, apart from the FSB and they don't bungle things like that. In any case, there's no letup. They've branded me a Wahhabi. I won't swear oaths to the Sheikhs, I pray directly to Allah, I have a beard, as Allah's messenger said to do.... When I got out of prison in February, my cellmates told me: "Drink, smoke and go to brothels, then no one will touch you. That's the only solution." But I would rather reject my family, although I am prepared to give my life for them, than reject my faith. Others advised me not to leave the house. There were another three men who were in the remand prison on the same charge as me and were released at the same time - we were supposed to be part of a gang. Two of them haven't left the house all these months. The third only goes outside with his relatives, and not very often. But I have to work to feed my children. That's no solution either. I have one weapon against them, the doa - prayer - and Allah has heard my doa. But he won't hear theirs. They don't have a protector, like I do. His will is everything. Allah does not ask of people things they cannot do."
Aisha nods in agreement. Eldar takes the little boy from her, lightly throws him into the air, kisses his forehead and whispers something tender. The girl in the fluffy pink jumpsuit stretches out her arms to her father and laughs.
Nariman Mamedyarov doesn't look anything like the others who are branded "Wahhabis". He has no beard and is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He's an ordinary Caucasian guy, who doesn't look his 33 years. Nariman lays tiles for a living. There is enough work for him to feed his wife and children and to rent an apartment in an outlying district of town. But it's hard for him to work now - he can't bend his left arm at the elbow properly as the ligament is torn. The doctors say it's too late for an operation. They could try of course. But it's probably pointless - it will just be torture for him. Nariman's arm was injured at the "sixth department." He didn't notice how it happened because that night he was not only beaten, but subjected to electric shock torture. The pain was so great he couldn't feel anything else.
Nariman was taken last year, in the early evening September 25. It happened not far from School No. 57. A car stopped by him, and four "officers" in masks and camouflage jumped out, dragged him into the back seat, and put a black bag over his head. They drove for about half an hour, then threw him to the ground and started beating him. They asked him about Vadim Butdaev, but Nariman had no idea who he was. They gave him electric shocks by connecting up wires to his thumbs.
Then he was pushed into the car again and taken to the division. Nariman realized where he was going, because the sixth department is next to the central mosque, and during the namaz prayers he heard the voice of the muezzin. If he had not heard this, he would not have known where he was as no one took the bag off his head. The electric shock torture went on all night and his nails were pulled out with pliers. He screamed: "Kill me, I don't know anything! I've never seen this Butdaev! I can't take it anymore." The officers laughed: "After what we do to you, you'll envy the dead! You'll admit to everything!" By morning, he had said he had taken weapons to this mysterious Butdaev, just so they would leave him alone. And he really was left alone. For a few days he lay on the floor with the bag on his head. He was given water twice and taken to the toilet once. He was not given any food at all, but to be quite honest he didn't want any.
Nariman says that on September 28 he was taken to the police station in Buinaksk. A police chief finally took the bag of his head-- and put an automatic weapon in his hands, so as to put his fingerprints on it. Then he told Nariman to sign a statement that the police officers had found him in the forest, in dirty clothes, with a broken arm and that he had sworn at them. Nariman signed everything because they told him that if he didn't sign it, he would simply be taken into the forest and killed. And the gun would be placed on top of his corpse. It would be a great special operation.
In total, Nariman was given 10 days of administrative arrest for using obscene language. It was cold in the police cell. And he was hardly given any food. But on the first day his arm was put in a cast. And he wasn't beaten. What else could he ask for? Nariman wanted something else - he wanted to go home. He was taken back to Makhachkala after 10 days, and taken to the Leninsky district prosecutor's office. The investigator said: "Sign here and you'll go straight home. This is a report that you were interrogated as a witness." Nariman said he signed without reading it. He was just very tired, and wanted to go back to his family.
But instead of going home he was taken to the Makhachkala police cells, where a lawyer came to see him. She told Nariman that he had confessed to supplying weapons to "Butdaev's gang" and, as part of this group, had planned to kill law-enforcement officers. Nariman rejected this testimony. During the night officers from the "sixth department" came to his cell. They told him that it was not a good idea to go back on his words and beat him up a little to drive the message home. Nariman really didn't want electric shock torture again, so he promised to repeat his testimony. But when the investigator came to see him in the morning, he decided not to do this. There were three more night visits from officers of the sixth department. Then some other officers came along, who said they were from the general investigation department. They threatened to take him to the Russian military base in Chechnya at Khankala: "you've been giving us all this trouble for nothing, and there you'll either tell us everything quickly, or you'll disappear." But in the end they didn't take him.
These talks had all taken so long that Nariman had been held in the police cells for 26 days, instead of the 10 days stipulated by law. He was moved to a remand prison, where he met Eldar Navruzov, who was also being held under the "Vadim Butdaev case" and who also had no idea who this person was. Itwas only later, once they were released, that Mamedyarov and Navruzov got to meet the Butdaev family.
Like Eldar Navruzov, Nariman Mamedyarov was released in February because all the charges fell through - apart from one, involving the automatic weapon with his fingerprints on it. The Buinaksk police knew what they were doing when they put the weapon in his hands.
Nariman has given a written undertaking not to leave town. He tries not to leave his home without a relative. He has noticed someone following him several times. But he cannot sit at home all day. He has to work. There is no one else to feed his family. He shrugs: "They kept asking me at the prosecutor's office whether I was a Wahhabi. In fact I go to an ordinary, traditional mosque. But I pray regularly and before Ramadan I and a few other guys spent 10 days in prayer in the mosque. For a Muslim this is a good thing to do. Three of those guys were arrested with me. Two of them were soon released. But the third was held for several months, like me... I think the police can't catch the real "forest brothers," but they have to have some statistics to report. They take guys in when they notice that they go to the mosque a lot. "
I was taken to see Nariman Mamedyarov by Vadim Butdaev's brother in an old, shaky truck. Butdaev was killed by officers when they stormed a house in Makhachkala on last November 17. In Dagestan he is portrayed as an important figure in the "Wahhabi underground." The press implied that he was receiving money from Al-Qaeda. If he did get money, it was clearly not enough to support his family.
Butdaev did take off for the forest the previous summer. His family-members believe that he would not have joined the insurgents if he could have lived and prayed without persecutions, beatings and humiliation.
His brother Ismail shakes his mane of gray hair, and looks into my eyes: "I'm not going to talk about Vadim any more. You didn't know him, you didn't see him. Why should you believe me? But you've just talked to this guy Nariman. Is he an enemy? A terrorist? What can a person do if he is not allowed to believe in God? What can he and his friends do if they cannot protect themselves? You know, if you drive a rat into a corner, it will bite you in the face... These guys are forced to do the same thing."
This article first appeared on http:// www.polit.ru and http://www.islamnews.ru
On January 23, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report, Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia, summing up its extensive findings regarding the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred during the conflict in South Ossetia and uncontested Georgian territories. The armed conflict as such lasted only one week in August 2008, but the consequences will indubitably endure for much longer. The conflict and its aftermath have seen lives, livelihoods, homes, and communities devastated in South Ossetia and bordering districts of Georgia. As the conflict broke out, Human Rights Watch researchers immediately began documenting the violations that were committed by all sides. All this data, including more than 460 interviews over several months of field research, formed the basis for the legal analysis presented in the final report.
Human Rights Watch's research documented a number of indiscriminate and disproportionate artillery attacks by Georgian forces on South Ossetia and other attacks, which were part of the ground assault. These attacks caused excessive harm to civilians with respect to the military advantage that was to be gained. In particular, Georgian forces made extensive use in civilian areas of multiple-rocket launching systems, known as Grad (Russian for hail), which cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to distinguish between civilian and military objects - thereby causing indiscriminate harm to civilians. The very use of Grad rockets in areas populated by civilians is just one way in which Georgian forces conducted attacks in South Ossetia disregarding the safety of civilians.
Human Rights Watch found that, in a number of instances in South Ossetia and in undisputed Georgian territory, Russian forces used indiscriminate aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes, killing and wounding many civilians. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which Russian forces occupying the Gori district in Georgia opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing or wounding civilians.
Russian and Georgian forces both used cluster munitions, causing civilian deaths and putting more civilians at risk by leaving behind unstable "minefields" of unexploded bomblets. The impact of cluster munitions on civilians in the conflict demonstrates why, in December 2008, 94 governments signed up to a comprehensive treaty to ban cluster munitions. This was negotiated just months before the conflict commenced: Russia and Georgia notably failed to sign.
South Ossetian violations
Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10. Over the following weeks South Ossetian forces deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that had been administered by the Georgian government. The South Ossetians looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained numerous ethnic Georgian civilians. They killed several, on the basis of their ethnic and imputed political affiliations, with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return. South Ossetian forces also arbitrarily detained no fewer than 159 ethnic Georgians. They killed at least one detainee and subjected nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and detention conditions. They also tortured no fewer than four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three.
The role of the Russian forces
As an occupying power in these areas, Russia failed in its duty under international humanitarian law to ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety. Instead of protecting civilians in the territories under its effective control, Russian forces allowed South Ossetian forces who followed in their path to engage in wanton and widescale pillage, the burning of Georgian homes and attacks on ethnic Georgian civilians. Such deliberate attacks are war crimes and, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic pattern, may also be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch concluded that the actions of the Ossetian forces against ethnic Georgians in several villages in South Ossetia, coupled with their intent to ensure none returned, amounted to attempted ethnic cleansing.
In Georgian territory adjacent to the South Ossetian administrative border, which at the time was occupied by Russia, South Ossetian militias looted, destroyed, and burned homes on a wide scale. They deliberately killed at least nine civilians, and raped at least two. Russian forces were at times involved in the looting and destruction, as passive bystanders or active participants, or by providing militias with transport into villages.
More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the conflict in South Ossetia remain displaced. Ethnic Georgians in the Akhalgori district - a remote area in the east of South Ossetia, currently occupied by Russian forces - face threats and harassment by militias and anxiety about a possible closure of the district's administrative border with the rest of Georgia. Both factors have caused great numbers of people to leave their homes for undisputed Georgian territory. The permanent forced displacement of thousands of people cannot be countenanced, and as long as Russia remains in effective control it should publicly promote the right of all persons displaced by the conflict to return and live in their homes in safety and dignity. It also has an obligation to ensure that this right can be effectively implemented and provide security to all persons living there, regardless of ethnicity.
The Way Forward
Human Rights Watch stresses the need for both Russia and Georgia to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into abuses committed by their forces. Russia should also investigate the crimes committed by South Ossetian forces, since it exercises effective control over South Ossetia. Russia and Georgia should not only hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but also provide appropriate redress to the numerous victims of the conflict.
The report Up in Flames measures each party's compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, not against the conduct of the other party. Exposing violations committed by one party does not excuse or mitigate those committed by another party. Nor under international humanitarian law does a violation by one party justify or mitigate violations by another party. Which party started the conflict has no bearing on their obligations to adhere to international humanitarian law and to hold violators accountable. Those seeking answers to questions about who committed worse, or more violations, or who bears responsibility for starting the conflict, will not find answers in this report. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that focusing on who started the war or who committed worse atrocities, as some observers are, misses the point: the urgent need to hold all who are responsible accountable and to allow displaced people to return home safely.
See the whole Human Rights Watch report:
Among those few Russian journalists who dared write the truth about the second Chechen war, Anna Politkovskaya is number one. That is, she was number one. It's still almost impossible to fully understand and accept that Anna is no more. She was travelling to the armed conflict-zone for so many years, wrote about such burning issues, took such tremendous risks that at some point many of us thought that she had already transcended the danger.
Certainly, back in 2001, when she published a series of articles on how Russian policeman Sergei Lapin tortured to death a Chechen young man, Zelimkhan Murdalov, the perpetrator started threatening her, and the threats were so serious that she even had to leave the country. At that time, some people thought that Politkovskaya would never return to Russia, and that even if she did, she'd never go to Chechnya again. But she did return several months later, continued her work on that case - and returned to the region again and again, published more striking stories about lawless violence and human suffering. In September 2004, she was allegedly poisoned on the plane to prevent her from going to Beslan, North Ossetia, to investigate the school siege which had ended in the deaths of hundreds of people.
Anna was ill for a long time after this incident, but she survived and kept working. Her hard-edged publications made such a name for her that she became an icon of a sort to her readers in Chechnya, Russia and the west. In recent years it seemed inconceivable that she could be simply, cynically killed. After all, President Putin and his team could not possibly afford such a terrible ugly scandal. Apparently, they can. Anna is dead - four gunshots were certainly more than enough.
Whenever I traveled to Chechnya, some local residents, having found out I came from Moscow, would always ask: "Have you met Politkovskaya? Are you personally acquainted? Really? Could you then pass these documents to her. Please ask her to write a piece on this case. And on this one, too. If it had not been for her, no one would've known of our pain, we would've been all killed in silence, all of us. Please thank her for us."
Tanya Lokshina is head of the Russian human-rights think-tank Demos
Also by Tanya Lokshina in open Democracy:
"Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)
Also in openDemocracy:
Anna Politkovskaya, "Chechnya: Russia's shame"
(9 October 2006)
Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)
A fighter for truth
For the Chechens she was, first and foremost, the woman who cared, who tried to change something. She was respected by friends and enemies. Even Chechen officials, including those from the security agencies who knew that Politkovskaya was working against them and condemned her for it, sometimes praised Anna for her tenacity and courage ("she's brave, that woman, you can't frighten her").
Anna was a fighter for truth, more than anything else. And she was certainly no saint. Strong-willed, unyielding and forceful, she would attack even her colleagues and supporters. She always felt no one was doing enough to help those in need and to save the world. She was convinced that no compromises were possible and seemed to believe that if all the honest people fearlessly upheld truth and together beat their heads against the wall, the wall would crumble from their pressure.
Anna doggedly uncovered the crimes of the military and the security services. In the past three years, she wrote a lot about Ramzan Kadyrov and his men, and about the abductions, executions and torture perpetrated by them. She openly declared that she dreamed of seeing the Chechen leader behind bars and was systematically working to achieve that objective.
Anna frequently walked on the very edge, risking not only her own life and safety but also the life and safety of those who helped her get the information. There were people living in Chechnya in permanent danger, who shared facts and leads with her, drove her around, hid her in their homes for the night. When one tried to reason with Anna, her reaction was always dramatic. She screamed that someone had to do this, someone had to speak despite all danger and not be a chicken. She stressed that if some people hadn't been too careful - "yes, people like you!" - the overall situation would not be so desperate.
Today, several scenarios of Politkovskaya's murder are proposed: it was organised by Ramzan Kadyrov himself; planned by someone who wanted to paint Kadyrov black and ruin his chance to acquire the presidency of Chechnya; perpetrated by a figure from the military or the security services whose crimes Anna had exposed; or, more personally, was an act of revenge by a mate of that policeman Lapin who, thanks to Anna and a few others, ended up in prison for eleven years. Politkovskaya's enemies were numerous and came in different guises.
The most disturbing and absurd aspect of the situation is that each of those narratives seems quite plausible. This would be conceivable in a normal democratic society, but in our country there are too many people, forces and agencies likely to seek to get rid of an uncompromising, relentless journalist. No one doubts that the motive for Anna's murder was political.
Voices and silence
Several hours after the killing, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, issued a brief statement. The American president and the French president paid their tributes, as too did various Russian politicians. Diplomats, ambassadors, heads of international organisations all spoke to condemn the crime and express their hopes for a speedy and effective investigation. It seemed that not only Russia but the entire world awaited President Putin's response. But the Russian leader remained dead silent.
Finally, three days later, he grew tired of the media debates on the meaning of his silence and told a German newspaper: "murder is a very grave crime before the society and before God. The criminals should be found." Putin could have left it there but chose to add: "Politkovskaya's political influence inside the country was of little significance. She was more known in human-rights circles and to the western media. And I think that Politkovskaya's murder caused more harm to the Russian and Chechen authorities than her publications."
So, according to the president, Anna's efforts had next to no impact. In other words, she wasted her life. At the same time, there is a certain paradox in his utterance: if the president says her publications were somewhat harmful to the state, then she must have had some influence... One way or another, Putin's line of thinking implies that Anna was a problem when alive and remains an even worse problem for Russia once dead. The Russian president is probably a very honest person - he cannot help but speak his mind. However, speaking ill of the deceased is inappropriate for any layperson, not to mention a state leader.
Today, western reporters and politicians are all asking the same question: will Russian journalists and human-rights defenders stop speaking of Chechnya and exposing human-rights violations altogether? Certainly, they have very good reasons to quit.
Anna Politkovskaya was a household name, but her fame did not protect her from a horrible, brutal death. This clearly shows how absolutely, frighteningly vulnerable everyone involved in this area of work is. At the same time, to keep silent now, after Anna's murder, amounts to becoming complicit with her killers. This would be to bury her for the second time, and wipe out the results and the very meaning of her work - the work for which she paid with her very life. People who understand this will not remain mute.
Anna Politkovskaya was born in New York in 1958 to a family of Soviet diplomats. She studied at Moscow State University, and earned a diploma in journalism before working for several Russian newspapers and broadcasters.
She visited Chechnya for the first time in 1998 (on assignment with Obshchaya Gazeta ) to conduct an interview with the president, Aslan Maskhadov. By the time of the second Chechen war in 1999, she was working for the independent democratic newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. She reported the war extensively and visited Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia dozens of times.
In 2001, she received the Golden Quill Award for a series of reportages from Chechnya. Many of these were collected into her books, among them A Small Corner of Hell (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 2006)
Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. The killer dropped his gun next to her dead body and fled