Human rights defenders battle on as Chechnya cracks down
By Shaun Walker, 21 March 2016
“Head of Committee to Prevent Torture speaks out after office raid, beatings of journalists and attack on him in street
Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee to Prevent Torture, was attacked after being thrown out of his hotel in Grozny. Photograph: Olga Reshetilova
It has not been a good month for the Committee to Prevent Torture. The human rights group, which works to bring to justice Russian police and officials who use torture on prisoners, had its offices in Chechnya broken into. Another of its premises in neighbouring Ingushetia, where the group has kept its documents on Chechnya since its previous Chechen offices were burned down a year ago, was raided by armed men.
The same evening, masked men accosted a minibus full of journalists on a tour put on by the group. They stopped the bus on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, beat the passengers and set the bus on fire, screaming that the group should stay out of Chechnya.
When last week the group’s head, Igor Kalyapin, travelled to Grozny in an attempt to arrange a press conference, he was thrown out of the hotel he was staying in, with the reasoning that people who criticised Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-appointed leader, were not welcome there.
When he walked on to the street, a group of about 15 youths in masks attacked him, punching him as well as throwing eggs, chemicals and flour at him.
The minibus driver is still in hospital recovering from broken ribs and other injuries.
The work of Kalyapin’s group is controversial across Russia, where police torture is widespread, but in other regions, the committee’s lawyers have had some successes: more than 100 law enforcement officials have been jailed and Kalyapin was even brought on to president Vladimir Putin’s official human rights council in 2012.
It has not helped him in Chechnya. His lawyers have never won a case in the region, and Kadyrov, who has been accused of involvement in a number of murders including that of the rights activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009, does not take kindly to those shining a light on the abuses of his militias and police battalions.
The risks have long been clear to Kalyapin and his group. He said, however, that the attack on the bus full of journalists still came as a nasty surprise. “To be honest I was shocked. They’ve stolen things from us, burned us down, broken in and threatened, but to beat up people, including women, with batons? This was something I didn’t expect,” he said.
With his dark green jumper, stocky frame and confident baritone, Kalyapin, 49, has the air of a Russian army officer and somehow remains upbeat. He chain smokes and drinks strong tea during a long interview, ending it close to 2am because he has to meet with the committee and schedule Chechnya trips for the next two weeks.
In all other Russian regions, the committee uses local lawyers and consultants, but in Chechnya it sends in rotating groups of outside lawyers, for security reasons. Though it has proved impossible to win a case against Kadyrov’s forces – there have even been cases of investigators being attacked for daring to call battalion members to give evidence – sometimes the details collected during the court cases are sufficient to get the victims on a Russian witness protection programme or asylum abroad. He is adamant the work will continue despite the recent attacks.
“We won’t have anyone staying the night in Chechnya any more, it’s clearly too dangerous,” he said. “If they can attack me, a member of the president’s human rights council, outside the poshest hotel in the city, then it’s clear that there are no limits. But we can’t pull out altogether. We all have to take a risk. There is no choice. We have two or three court hearings a week there. As long as people want our help there, we will have a presence there.”
Kalyapin’s stoicism about the threat of violence is at least partly down to his past, navigating the violent business climate of Russia in the 1990s.
After being kicked out of his physics institute in Nizhny Novgorod in the late 1980s for taking part in the nascent pro-democracy movement, he went into business. In 1992, he was arrested on suspicion of carrying out a bank robbery in Moscow; he believes the police were paid off by business rivals to arrest him. He spent three months in prison and said he was beaten every day by police demanding information about a crime he had no knowledge about. On death’s door, he was suddenly released after three months when the actual culprits were found. Later, he was kidnapped and tortured with electric shocks, he said. His business partner’s daughter was also kidnapped, he said.
By 2000, he had gone into rights work full time. “I went into business because I wanted to be free, to make money and not depend on anyone. But it turned out you depend on all these corrupt officials that come and demand bribes, on all the people who wanted protection money. And when I started working on rights cases I began to notice that it made me feel really good, that I could feel the stress pouring out of my body.”
The use of force to extract confessions is still extremely widespread in Russia, and is rarely taken seriously even when its bruises are visible and medically proven. In the trial of Oleg Sentsov, the Crimean film director convicted of plotting terrorist acts during Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, a prosecutor told the court that bruises on Sentsov’s body that appeared to have come from beatings during interrogation were probably a result of masochistic sexual practices.
Kadyrov’s battalions operate with even more impunity. A high-ranking member of one was charged with the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last year, and there are suspicions that the chain of command goes much higher. Those who have come out of Chechnya’s prisons and police stations tell tales of electric shock torture and other barbaric measures.
“In Chechnya, the rule of law doesn’t seem to exist and torture is rampant,” said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch. “Kalyapin and his group are practically the only ones who dare do human rights work in Chechnya despite vicious threats and brazen attacks.”
The Committee to Prevent Torture has a full-time staff of nearly 40, based mainly out of Nizhny Novgorod. Because it mainly receives funding from foreign donors, it has been forced to register as a “foreign agent” under a controversial law. A sleight-of-hand manoeuvre to rename it from the Committee Against Torture did not work – the newly named Committee to Prevent Torture was also declared a foreign agent last month.
Kadyrov has warmed to the foreign agent theme with relish. “I don’t know if he ordered the attacks personally, but every week on television he’s emotionally shouting that Kalyapin takes money from the CIA and MI6, that he gives it out to terrorists, and that he’s an enemy of the people,” said Kalyapin.
Asked whether he has received any threats, other than the steady hum of insinuations from Kadyrov, he said: “Not really. Of course on social media people are always promising to rip my arms and legs off and do all kinds of things, but there has been nothing I would take seriously.”
There appears to be only one limit to his stoicism. After the attack on him in Grozny, perhaps in a sign that Moscow was unhappy with the latest events in Chechnya, Kalyapin’s name made a rare appearance on state television, with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, calling the attack “unacceptable”. Kalyapin said one of the first calls he made after the attack, as a friend drove him out of Chechnya covered in eggs and chemicals, was to his daughter.
“I told her to pretend that the television at home was broken. If my mum found out about any of this, she’d have a heart attack.” ”