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New Killings And “Disappearances” In Chechnya

(New York, March 23, 2002)—Russian forces on sweep operations in Chechnya continue to commit serious violations, Human Rights Watch said today. Fourteen witnesses have told Human Rights Watch researchers in the field about torture and ill-treatment, forced disappearances, and the discovery of the corpses and burned remains of nine people that took place during the March 6-11 sweep operation in Staryi Atagi, 25 miles south of Grozny.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is scheduled to debate Russia’s conduct of the Chechnya operation next week in Geneva.

“The Russians have a lot of explaining to do,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “The government says it has taken measures to improve the conduct of forces on sweep operations, but they’re not working and the situation is deteriorating. The U.N. commission should adopt a resolution on Chechnya that makes this clear.”

In a sweep operation, Russian forces typically seal off a village and conduct house-to-house searches, ostensibly to detain suspected fighters or their supporters. At least two prior sweep operations have taken place in Staryi Atagi since January 2002. Federal authorities claim Staryi Atagi harbors rebel fighters.

At least ten men “disappeared” in the Staryi Atagi operation; the corpses or burned remains of nine people were found, raising fears that they were extrajudicially executed. So far, the remains of only one of the “disappeared,” 26-year old Imran Kuntaev, detained on March 6, were found the next day in a house that had just been burned. A witness told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of March 6, uniformed troops detained Imran Kuntaev in his home. On March 7, 2002, a fire burned down an abandoned house on Nagornaia Street, which Russian troops had been blocking off. When the fire was extinguished, four bodies were found in the smoldering remains. Imran Kunatev’s relatives identified him by his teeth, four of which were gold. Villagers believe that the remains of two more persons were burnt to coals.

On March 9, three additional bodies—all unidentified—were found in a burned-out vehicle at the edge the village. The car reportedly had been confiscated on March 7 from a shop where it was under repair. Under the much-lauded Presidential Decree No. 46, adopted after notoriously harsh sweeps in June and July 2001, officials on sweep operations are supposed to compile a comprehensive list of all detainees. This list would indicate the grounds for detention, and information about who took the individual into custody and where the detainee was taken. It further required officials to inform relatives of the detainees of their whereabouts. While such a list exists, the ten “disappeared” detainees are not on it. Among them was 30-year-old Adlan Baisarov, who subsequently “disappeared.” His cousin told Human Rights Watch: “The [soldiers] come practically every day to check [our passports], and he never had any problems before. I asked why they took him, if they had found anything. They said that they weren’t taking him, and they were just going to talk.” The cousin received information from a local official that all of the Staryi Atagi detainees had been transferred to the district Federal Security Service in Tolstoy-Yurt, but when she went there officials denied holding Baisarov. Adlan Baisarov, who has two small children, suffers from rheumatism and a liver condition.

Amir Pokaev, 20, also “disappeared” on March 6. A male relative told Human Rights Watch that when Russian forces arrived at the home, “They lined us up [the men], and took our passports. They gave everyone’s passport back except Amir’s. Then they came and said Amir had to come with them. They said that they would bring him back.” That was last time any relatives saw Pokaev. The local military commander told the relative that no one by Pokaev’s name had been detained. Relatives have inquired to the procuracy, local detention centers, and other places about his whereabouts but have received no answers.

“Decree 46 was a welcome step, but it clearly isn’t being fully implemented to prevent forced disappearances,” said Andersen. “Nor is it fully preventing mistreatment of detainees.”

Some of the detainees were taken to a nearby poultry farm that had previously also been used as a short-term detention facility, and there they were mistreated. Among the detainees was a seventeen-year old who told Human Rights Watch that Russian soldiers at the poultry farm tried to coerce him into giving information on the whereabouts of rebel fighters. The soldiers pinched and twisted the skin on his chest, arms and legs with medical tweezers; they then shoved the tweezers up his nose and then into his mouth, threatening to take out his teeth. He also said that he had seen other detainees being beaten.

Some villagers report that Russian soldiers tried to extort money and valuables from them in exchange for not taking their sons. After detaining him outside, soldiers brought Aslan Akhmadov to his home, where they demanded that his family pay 10,000 rubles (about U.S. $300) for his release. His mother, Arzu Akhmadova, told Human Rights Watch that Akhmadov was bloody, apparently from having been beaten. Akhmadova said soldiers took about $200 and a pair of gold earrings—all the family could gather—and promised to release Akhmadov after checking his documents. Arzu Akhmadov has not been able to get any information about her son since that time.

Only after residents held a mass protest on March 12 in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, did the office of the prosecutor (the procuracy) open criminal investigations into the Staryi Atagi sweep. Russian authorities at first tried to dismiss the need for an investigation, by implying that the individuals whose remains were found were linked with Zelimkhan Sadayev, a Chechen fighter who was killed during the sweep operation. They also tried to persuade residents to bury the bodies immediately, which would have precluded a forensic examination.

The village elders have been told that basic identification to ascertain blood type, height, and stomach contents of those killed would be given to them by the end of March, and the bodies would be returned for burial shortly thereafter. There are no indications, however, that the Russian authorities intend to use other forensic methods or DNA technology to match the remains to the missing.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that given Russia’s past record on accountability, the investigation into the Staryi Atagi killings would not bring those responsible to justice. Hundreds of cases have been opened, but many have been suspended and very few have led to prosecutions.

“Russia has a sorry record on accountability for abuse in Chechnya,” said Andersen. “And meanwhile, there is no official record of the atrocities that are being perpetrated. The U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva must prevail upon Russia to invite special U.N. investigators on extrajudicial executions and torture. They can establish an official record of these abuses.”

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