Justice, Chechen style

Varvara Pakhomenko Alexander Mnatsakanian
23 July 2008

Someone is charged with banditry and sentenced to imprisonment. Chechnya is full of stories like this, and they are almost all the same. They are so common that unless you have the details of the case at hand, the names are easily confused.

Once upon a time, someone fought for an illegal armed organization. Or sympathised with one. Or perhaps he wasn't involved at all. He was ‘unmasked' as a rebel, and tortured. Perhaps it wasn't so bad, perhaps he was not actually tortured, just not fed and beaten regularly. Perhaps he confessed to everything, or didn't confess, not even understanding what he was being charged with, before being brought to court and sentenced. Three elements run through all of these stories: the unmasking, the trial and the guilty sentence. It's a sort of conveyer belt...

When you see how many such cases there are, you begin to think that there can be no innocent people left in Chechnya. Almost anyone can be arrested, taken away for interrogation, then imprisoned. A person's safety depends only on who he knows in this or that government organisation. Whether he has relatives there or influential friends, relatives of friends or friends of relatives. It's just a matter of luck.

Twenty eight-year-old Lechi Dzhanaraliev, the hero of this article, was unlucky. He fell into this meat-grinder just over three years ago, and it is now practically impossible to talk to him. His wife, Zarema tells the story of what happened to Lechi. She talks calmly, she has no energy left for emotion. She has repeated her story many times before: ‘We lived in Khasavyurt for a while. We went there because we wanted to live a bit more peacefully. We returned to Grozny in April 2005. Almost immediately, a friend rang my husband. They hadn't seen each other for one and a half years, and had only talked on the phone. The next day, they met in the middle of town. The friend was a wanted man, and my husband didn't know. When they came to our house in the evening, the police at the checkpoint on Baronovsky Bridge signaled for them to stop. My husband said he didn't see the signal - it was dark at the time. The police then opened fire on the car. The friend was killed on the spot, and my husband received a bullet to the head. He lost consciousness, but survived...'

There is nothing surprising about this, and it is pointless to try to clarify the details. Perhaps the police did signal to them, then opened fire. Perhaps they opened fire without warning. Perhaps the men saw the signal, but didn't stop the car. Or perhaps they didn't see it. All these scenarios have been repeated in Chechnya hundreds of times in recent years. Even now, when things have become much more peaceful, people try not to leave their homes after dark without very good reason.

That same night, Lechi Dzhanaraliev was taken to Hospital No 9 in Grozny. During the month that he spent there, the law only relaxed its grip for twelve hours, which is how long his operation took. They began interrogating him when he was still in intensive care. And the judge also decided to put him in custody at the hospital. Perhaps the fact that the judge came to the hospital was the first and last ‘act of mercy' in this affair. But actually he had no choice, for the shoot-out had left Lechi paralysed.

After a month in hospital, despite the doctors' protests, Lechi was taken to Leninsky district police station. No one had any intention of giving him further treatment there. No concessions were made for the fact that he was paralysed: he was tortured, beaten and had cigarettes stubbed out on his body. The police station is not designed for holding prisoners, so Lechi kept on being dragged from office to office, and sent to the cell at night.

After several months, Lechi's relatives managed to have him transferred to a detention centre. There he was certified as seriously disabled (initially temporary, and then for life). Lechi was carried from the detention centre to the court on a stretcher. There he lay, trying to prove his innocence.

Dzhanaraliev was charged on three counts: article 317 (resisting arrest), 209 (banditry) and 222 (illegal possession of weapons). Unlike his murdered friend, they did not charge him under article 208 (taking part in an illegal armed formation). He was not charged with any other incidents of banditry except for the one at the police checkpoint. The charge was based entirely on the allegation that he and his friend opened fire on the checkpoint themselves when they drove past. There were few witnesses to the crime. Only one person said that he saw shots fired from the car, but the other witnesses did not confirm this. The paralysed ‘rebel' was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

We were promised that he would only be sent to Georgievsk, where he could stay in hospital,' Zarema explains. ‘But he was sent with the other prisoners to Izhevsk. There was no special transport, no doctors accompanying him - the escorts simply dragged him along without a stretcher. And in Izhevsk he was only held in hospital for a week. They threw him out of the hospital when they heard him praying, saying "You can pray in the toilet". We wrote a statement, and he was taken back to hospital, but only for a week. He only spent two weeks in hospital over the entire year!'

A year later, Dzhanaraliev was sent back to Grozny once again. His wife had managed to get his case re-examined with the help of lawyers from the human rights centre Memorial. In July of last year, the judge Madaev significantly changed the sentence. The charge of illegally possession of weapons was dropped, and the sentence was reduced by six months.

The charges of banditry and resisting arrest had become quite absurd. How can you open fire on a police checkpoint without a weapon? And how exactly did an unarmed man with a head injury resist arrest? Lechi declared himself to be innocent at the first and second trials.

After the trial, he was sent to Georgievsk in the province of Stavropol. On 19 March 2008 a commission of eight people deemed that the case of Lechi Musaevich Dzhanaraliev was covered under the Russian government decree ‘On the medical examination of prisoners exempted from punishment in connection with illness.' The grounds were ‘traumatic affliction of the central nervous system with stable manifestations of focal lesion of the brain.'

‘Wherever my husband's been, everyone's been astounded at the way he's been treated. Even the head of the detention centre appealed to have him released on health grounds. He can't move without help, he can't even sit - only shift from side to side in bed. This spring, Russian doctors in Georgievsk concluded that he should be released. Then he was sent back to Grozny, where he spent over a month at the detention centre and two weeks in Chernokozovo. But we didn't get any results. The Chechen doctors in Chernokozovo say whatever their bosses tell them to. They wrote that he could be transported with other prisoners. I even know why too - if an innocent man is sentenced, and held even for a day, the authorities are obliged to pay compensation,'says Zarema.

There have been some changes in Lechi's case, but not for the better. While he was previously described as unemployed in his dossier, the investigators have now ‘recalled' some details in his biography. At one stage, before he left for Khasavyurt, he worked for a few months in the Grozny police force. This means he's going to have to serve out his sentence in what they call the ‘red zone', along with former Russian policemen. Whether or not they've taken part in any ‘anti-terrorist operations,' people like that don't have much sympathy for Chechens. As to how they're likely to treat a paralysed Chechen charged with shooting at a police checkpoint, that doesn't bear thinking about.

The Chechen authorities, and President Ramzan Kadyrov above all, are fond of declaring that they will go all out to ensure that sentenced Chechens serve out their punishment in their own republic. Kadyrov began talking about this before he became president. But nothing has changed in this respect since he took power over a year ago. Chechens, mainly those deemed to be rebels, are still held in prison all over Russia. Formally, there is some justification for this. By law, criminals should serve their sentences as close as possible to their homes, but the state of prisons in Chechnya still leaves a lot to be desired. Prisons are currently being built for women and juvenile delinquents. The leadership of the republic is clearly trying to care for the weakest members of society first of all, but the vast majority of prisoners are grown men.

In trying to save her husband, Zarema, like most people in Chechnya, does not put her hopes in the supremacy of the law, so much as the political will of the federal government and the mercy of the local authorities. Although she had already sent a statement to the General Prosecutor's office and the Federal Penitentiary Service, when she learned that her husband could be moved to the ‘red zone' in Mordovia, she decided to appeal for help to the human rights commissioner of the Chechen Republic, Nurdi Nukhazhiev: ‘Even arranging a meeting him was difficult. I waited outside his door from 9 to 6 for three days - the secretary said that the commissioner did not deal with cases like this. I only managed to see him with the head of a public organisation. He immediately said: "What's all this, didn't you know that I was here, why didn't you come to see me as soon as it happened, I'm supposed to help people like you." Nukhazhiev gave an order to delay the transportation of my husband, until 27 June. He said that he would try to get to the bottom of the matter, but that he wouldn't receive me again after that.'

On 27 June, Lechi Dzhanaraliev was sent away - once again without a stretcher or doctor. The escorts dragged him out of his cell and pushed him into a vehicle. He is now waiting in Pyatigorsk to be sent to Mordovia.

Perhaps it is wrong to end on such an emotional note. But it is impossible to write about this situation in any other terms. At the beginning of this year, pressure on the authorities from civil society literally saved the prisoner Vasily Alexanian, who was dying without medical aid. Human rights activists were reproached with coming to the defence of a wealthy Moscow lawyer. Lechi Dzhanaraliev, a poor Chechen man, is nothing like him. There is only one similarity: the same justice system is grinding him down. And it cannot stop of its own accord.

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