Monitoring Human Rights in Chechnya
They never go out alone, and when they are in their small apartment here in the capital of Chechnya, a flat screen on the wall displays a continuous feed from security cameras in the hall and stairway outside.
When the three men squeeze into their little car, they can activate a video camera and microphone in case of trouble and push a small red button on their dashboard to transmit sound directly to their main office 900 miles (around 1450 kilometers) away.
“It’s an internal rule,” said Vladislav Sadykov, 46, a lawyer who leads the group. “We always travel together. If you are alone, it is easier to kidnap and torture you. The pictures are for protection, and also in case they kill us it will be recorded.”
The three men make up the current shift in a rotation of visiting human rights investigators called the Joint Mobile Group, which has taken on kidnapping and torture cases in this Russian [occupied] republic that it considers too dangerous for resident human rights workers to handle.
“All local human rights people here live in danger,” said Dmitri Laptev, 24, a lawyer who has been in Grozny for 45 days on his third rotation. “Their homes can be burned. Their children can be kidnapped.”
The brutal war is mostly over in Chechnya, but kidnappings and extrajudicial killings continue in a more targeted way against people who support the rebels or speak out against the pro-Russian government of the Chechen leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, human rights groups say.
“When you talk to ordinary people, you are shocked to see how afraid they are,” Mr. Laptev said.
The human rights group “Memorial” said its monitors were finding it more difficult to do their work, partly because victims and their relatives have become more frightened than in the past about reporting abuses.
“The kidnapping goes on without fear,” said Mr. Sadykov, who is here on his fourth tour. “They do it openly. They show that they are with [pro-Russian] law enforcement, and law enforcement leaves them alone.” He added: “It’s simple work, no investigation, no documents, no legal steps. Just seize someone and take him away.”
The Joint Mobile Group, with its main office in Nizhny Novgorod, recruits lawyers and investigators from human rights organizations around the Russia to work in teams of three in Chechnya for a month or more.
In May, the group was recognized with the annual Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, awarded in Dublin by the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, for its work in bringing human rights abuses to light.
“We work like investigators, looking at pictures, talking to witnesses,” Mr. Sadykov said. “We do all this the way it should be done, though we have no official standing. We get evidence and then we ask official organs to make their own investigation.”
The team’s work sometimes bears fruit, he said, and charges have been brought against some [pro-Russian] law enforcement officers.
The Joint Mobile Group was founded in 2009 after the abduction and killing of Natalya Estemirova, a local researcher for Memorial who was one of the most persistent and best-known activists in Chechnya.
Two of Ms. Estemirova’s colleagues at Memorial were evacuated and one who worked closely with her moved to Norway.
Since Ms. Estemirova’s death, human rights advocates here have mostly stepped back from confronting the pro-Russian authorities directly with reports of abuses, Mr. Sadykov said. Memorial has at times withdrawn its monitors from Chechnya for periods of several weeks or several months.
In a way, the Joint Mobile Group is carrying on Ms. Estemirova’s work.
“They had the idea that she was causing problems and without her there would be fewer problems,” Mr. Sadykov said. “But who am I? We rotate. They know there are people behind us and that if they kill me someone else will come.”
Among the half-dozen cases the group is currently pursuing is one of Ms. Estemirova’s final ones, the disappearance of a former rebel named Apti Zainalov, 23 at the time, who had turned himself in and served a year in prison. After his release, he disappeared in 2009, reappeared briefly under armed guard in a hospital and then vanished again.
In the days before she was killed, Ms. Estemirova had been demanding information about him from the hospital and the [pro-Russian] police, and the Joint Mobile Group has continued the pressure.
But Mr. Zainalov’s mother, Aima Makayeva, said she was weary of the pursuit and was ready to abandon the legal case if the [pro-Russian] authorities would just hand back her son.
“The only thing left is to go to Kadyrov,” she said. It is a view that is often expressed in Chechnya, where Kadyrov is in firm control of both the [pro-Russian] government and the [pro-Russian] security forces.
The tactic might work, Mr. Sadykov said. It would relieve the [pro-Russian] authorities of the constant pressure being brought by the investigators, and of the possibility that someone might actually be arrested and charged.
But, Mr. Sadykov said, it would run counter to the aim of the advocates to foster the rule of law and would instead demonstrate that it is still the men with guns who have the power to seize and release.
“The system is like a swamp,” Mr. Laptev said. “You throw in a stone and you make some ripples, and then it quiets down and the stone sinks to the bottom.”
Mr. Sadykov had an inside look at the system last year when he was part of a three-person team held overnight in a [pro-Russian] police station while investigating a report of a human rights violation. The group was released unharmed and has filed its own case charging illegal detention.
In a late-night discussion, he said, the [pro-Russian] police defended their methods, saying a harsh environment demands harsh tactics. “You have to torture,” he said one [pro-Russian] officer told him. “Without torture how can you fight terrorism?”
But Mr. Sadykov also observed that the work of human rights monitors seemed at least to be making an impression. When the three were released, he said, a [pro-Russian] officer asked him to sign a statement confirming that they had not been mistreated. “Otherwise,” the officer said, “you will say we tortured you.”
24.09.2011 – The New York Times