From the New York Times:
August 30, 2006
In Chechen’s Humiliation, Questions on Rule of Law
By C. J. CHIVERS
ARGUN, Russia, Aug. 26 — The humiliation of Malika Soltayeva, a pregnant Chechen woman suspected of adultery, was ferocious and swift.
Ms. Soltayeva, 23, had been away from home for a month and was reported missing by her family. When she returned, her husband accused her of infidelity and banished her from their apartment. The local authorities found her at her aunt’s residence. They said they had a few questions.
What followed was no investigation. In a law enforcement compound in this town in east-central Chechnya, the men who served as Argun’s police sheared away her hair and her eyebrows and painted her scalp green, the color associated with Islam. A thumb-thick cross was smeared on her brow.
Ms. Soltayeva, a Muslim, had slept with a Christian Russian serviceman, they said. Her scarlet letter would be an emerald cross. She was forced to confess, ordered to strip, and beaten with wooden rods and hoses on her buttocks, arms, legs, hands, stomach and back.
“Turn and be condemned by Allah,” one of her tormentors said, demanding that she position herself so he could strike her more squarely.
The torture of Ms. Soltayeva, recorded on a video obtained by The New York Times, and other recent brutish acts and instances of religious policing, raise questions about Chechnya’s direction.
Since 2004, the war in Chechnya has tilted sharply in the Kremlin’s favor, as open combat with separatists has declined in intensity and frequency. Moscow now administers the republic and fights the remaining insurgency largely through paramilitary forces led by Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the powerful young Chechen premier.
Mr. Kadyrov’s public persona is flamboyantly pro-Russian. He praises President Vladimir V. Putin and has pledged to rebuild Chechnya and lead it back to the Kremlin’s fold. “I cannot tell you how great my love for Russia is,” he said in an interview this year.
But beneath this publicly professed loyalty, some of Chechnya’s indigenous security forces — with their evident anti-Slavic racism, institutionalized brutality, culture of impunity and intolerant interpretation of a pre-medieval Islamic code — have demonstrated the vicious behavior that Russia has said its latest invasion of Chechnya, in 1999, was supposed to stop.
Human rights groups and Chechen civilians say that these security forces’ ambitions and loyalties are uncertain and that their actions are unchecked. The republic’s course, they say, is dangerous for Russians and Chechens alike.
Few people have yet compared the current disorder with the end of the brief period of Chechen autonomy, in the late 1990’s, when rebels and foreign Islamic mercenaries operated terrorist training camps in the forests, and when Islamic courts sentenced criminals to execution by firing squads, which were broadcast on Chechen television news. But Mr. Kadyrov’s police and security forces, known as kadyrovsty, are staffed mostly with uneducated young men, some of whom have been fighting for years, including many former rebels who have changed sides.
Recent videos of their conduct, provided to The New York Times by outraged Chechens, show an unsettling pattern.
One shows a man and a woman in the town of Shali, each married to someone else, who were suspected of flirting in a car this summer. The police swarmed around the couple, jeering at them, and directed the man to kick the woman. The couple was then forced to dance a brief lezginka, a traditional and often sexually charged dance. The police kicked the woman, too, and pulled her scarf and hair.
Although the faces of several of the officers are clear, they have yet to come under investigation by higher authorities.
Another instance of unrestrained behavior occurred in late July in Kurchaloi, when one of Mr. Kadyrov’s units killed a rebel, Akhmad Dushayev, and beheaded his body. The severed head was displayed on a pipe in the town’s center, residents said in interviews.
Videos show that, later, the kadyrovsty, many in police uniforms, casually amused themselves with the head, joking as they displayed it in a garage. Another video shows the head adorned with a cap and with a cigarette in its mouth.
Residents said the police justified the beheading by saying that Mr. Dushayev had previously cut off the head of a pro-Kremlin Chechen fighter, and that the vengeance was fair play.
Ms. Soltayeva’s own experience, much of which was captured on video, was an accumulation of terror, pain and loss.
She was seized March 19, and mocked throughout a torture session that lasted nearly two hours. “Call for Sergei!” one of the policemen said, using the name of her assumed lover as he beat her. “Sergei! Help!”
Next they told her to dress, and drove her to her husband’s courtyard and made her dance before her neighbors. “Look how ugly you are,” another policeman said.
When she staggered away, several of them kicked her with their heavy black boots. Two days later she miscarried, and has been largely out of public view since.
The episode, which took place five months ago, was not investigated, even though videos showing the torture were passed along on cellphones throughout Argun and other Chechen towns. The videos circulated widely enough that accurate details of her abuse were known by roughly half of the Chechens interviewed by The New York Times.
“It is just outrageous lawlessness,” Ms. Soltayeva said in an interview in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.
As is common in crumbling marriages, the details of Ms. Soltayeva’s family life and behavior are in dispute. Her former husband’s family says she had an affair with a Russian serviceman she met at a store where she worked as a cashier. She says that she did not, and that she was faithful to her husband even though he beat her.
Her whereabouts in the weeks leading up to her beating are also a source of contention.
Ms. Soltayeva said she was away from home because she had been abducted by masked men who eventually released her, a phenomenon in Chechnya that is common enough that her own family says they believe her. Her husband’s family, and the police, say that she left Chechnya to try to live with her Russian lover, and that she returned when it did not work out.
Natalya Estemirova, a staff member at the Grozny office of Memorial, a private human rights group, said she tried to bring the case to the Chechen authorities, but they threatened Ms. Soltayeva with criminal charges for falsely claiming to have been kidnapped. They showed no interest in the police violence, she said.
Allegations of state-sponsored horrors, and claims that Russian and Chechen officials have allowed servicemen to commit crimes with impunity, have been a regular accompaniment to the Chechen wars.
Human rights groups have documented mass graves, extralegal executions, widespread use and tolerance of torture, illegal detention, rape, robbery and kidnapping.
Some cases have seemed a matter of policy, as when suspected rebel supporters have been abducted during police and military sweeps. Other cases appeared to flow from the rage, drunkenness or frustration of ordinary soldiers fighting a savage guerrilla war.
What has made several recent cases different is that many of the kadyrovsty, unsophisticated gunmen who have had little contact with the world beyond Chechnya, have acquired cellphones with small video cameras and have casually, even gleefully, recorded their own crimes.
The video sequences are then shared, multiplying as they swiftly pass from phone to phone.
In a long interview earlier this year, Mr. Kadyrov said that his units were being professionalized and that the armed men under his command integrated into formal government structures. He insisted that they would be able to provide security and competent policing.
[On Aug. 29, The Times provided Mr. Kadyrov’s office with four videos of Ms. Soltayeva’s torture. Mr. Kadyrov said through a spokeswoman that upon viewing them he had ordered the Chechen Interior Ministry to investigate. “Criminal charges will be brought against all responsible for this,” said the spokeswoman, Tatyana Georgiyeva.]
Ms. Estemirova said that the unit in Argun that seized Ms. Soltayeva had been formally disbanded in the spring, but that its members were simply transferred into new “professional” battalions, known as North and South.
“They were assimilated into North and South and never checked by prosecutors,” she said. “Now they are more difficult to arrest.”