Vicious Crackdown on Critics in Russia’s Chechen Republic
HRW | 30, 08, 2016
“Now when I think back to the war, …
waiting for them to drag you away.”
-Resident of Chechnya, July 2016
For close to a decade, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, has steadily tried to eradicate all forms of dissent and gradually built a tyranny within Chechnya. Kadyrov has been in this post since 2007 by virtue of appointment from the Kremlin, but he now faces elections for the head (governor) of Chechnya scheduled for September 2016. In the months before those elections local authorities have been viciously and comprehensively cracking down on critics and anyone whose total loyalty to Kadyrov they deem questionable. These include ordinary people who express dissenting opinions, critical Russian and foreign journalists, and the very few human rights defenders who challenge cases of abuse by Chechen law enforcement and security agencies. The increasingly abusive crackdown seems designed to remind the Chechen public of Kadyrov’s total control and controlling the flow of any negative information from Chechnya that could undermine the Kremlin’s support for Kadyrov.
Residents of Chechnya who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies are the primary victims of this crackdown. The authorities, whether acting directly or through apparent proxies, punish them by unlawfully detaining them—including through abductions and enforced disappearances— subjecting them to cruel and degrading treatment, death threats, and threatening and physically abusing their family members. These abuses also send an unequivocal message of intimidation to others that undermines the exercise of many civil and political rights, most notably freedom of expression. Even the mildest expressions of dissent about the situation in Chechnya or comments contradicting official policies or paradigms, whether expressed openly or in closed groups on social media, or through off-hand comments to a journalist or in a public place, can trigger ruthless reprisals.
This report documents a new phase in the Chechnya crackdown and is based on 43 interviews with victims, people who are close to those who paid a price for their critical remarks, as well as with human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and other experts.
In one case documented in this report, a man died after law enforcement officials forcibly disappeared and tortured him. In another, police officials unlawfully detained, threatened, and ill-treated a woman and her three children in retaliation for her husband’s public remarks criticizing the authorities. Police officials beat the mother and the eldest daughter, age 17, and threatened them with death, in an effort to force them to persuade the father to retract his critical comments. In another five cases documented in this report, law enforcement and security officials, or their apparent proxies, abducted people and subjected them to cruel and degrading treatment; four of those individuals were forcibly disappeared for periods of time ranging from one to twelve days.
The authorities subjected five of the people whose cases are documented in this report to public humiliations, in which they were forced to publicly apologize to the Chechen leadership for their supposedly false claims and renounce or apologize for their actions. In Chechen society public humiliation and loss of face can lead to exclusion from social life for the victim and his or her extended family.
Human Rights Watch is aware of other similar cases of abuse against local critics but did not include them in this report because victims or their family members specifically requested us not to publish their stories or because we could not obtain video materials and other evidence to confirm their accounts. There is also little doubt that some abuses against local residents in Chechnya may never come to the attention of human rights monitors or journalists because the climate of fear in the region is overwhelming and local residents have been largely intimidated into silence.
The Chechen leadership has also intensified its onslaught against the few human rights defenders who still work in the region and provide legal and other assistance to victims of abuses. In the wake of the 2009 murder of Chechnya’s leading human rights defender, Natalia Estemirova, only one human rights organization, the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (JMG) had been able to stay on the ground in Chechnya to provide legal assistance to victims or their family members in cases of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions by law enforcement and security agencies under Kadyrov’s de facto control. However, towards the end of 2014 the Chechen leadership seemed determined to push JMG out of Chechnya. In the past two-and-a-half years law enforcement officials or their apparent proxies have on three occasions ransacked or burned the JMG’s offices in Chechnya, thugs who appear to be acting as Chechen authorities’ proxies have physically attacked JMG’s activists numerous times, and the pro-Kadyrov Chechen media has engaged in a massive smear campaign against the group. JMG withdrew its team from Chechnya in early 2016 for security reasons.
Chechen authorities have also been making it increasingly difficult for journalists to work in Chechnya. They have fostered a climate of fear in which very few people dare talk to journalists, except to compliment the Chechen leadership. And journalists who persevere with Chechnya work also find themselves at greater risk. This report documents a recent case of a journalist receiving threats, including death threats, another of a journalist who was arbitrarily detained while investigating a story, and a third case of a violent attack against a group of visiting journalists.
In March 2016 a group of masked men attacked a minibus driving a group of Russian and foreign journalists from Ingushetia to Chechnya, dragged the journalists from the bus, beat them, and set the bus on fire. The attack was so shocking that it triggered an immediate, unprecedented reaction from President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, who called it “absolutely outrageous” and said that the law enforcement should ensure accountability for the crime. However, at this writing, the investigation, to the extent there is an active one, into the attack has not yielded any tangible results.
One of the key requirements of a free and fair election is for the public and media to be able to express their views, including those critical of the authorities, without fear of reprisal. With authorities engaged in severe and sweeping repression, ordinary people in Chechnya and local media simply cannot express their views freely.
The Chechen Republic is a “subject,” or administrative unit, of the Russian Federation, and its authorities are duty bound to uphold the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in Russia’s domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. Russia’s leadership is clearly aware of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights, including freedom of expression. But it has done little more than issue rare words of concern. Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to ensure Chechen authorities fully comply with Russia’s legislation, including Russia’s obligations under international human rights law, and put an immediate end to the crackdown on free expression in the pre-election period and beyond. Russian authorities need to provide effective security guarantees to victims and witnesses of abuses and bring perpetrators of abuses to justice.”