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Mass executions, murders, abductions, rape, torture, intimidation, extortion, forged criminal proceedings, monstrous corruption — this is what Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya looks like today. The Russian republic is completely disconnected from the Russian legal system — with the consent of the Russian authorities.
This article is a partner post written by Małgorzata Łojkowska. The original version first appeared in Polish on Polityka, on 6 July 2019.
Nurmagomed did not know if he would make it to the evening alive. He did not know if he would be in Warsaw or in Grozny. He did not know what state he would be in a couple of hours after the Russian or Chechen security services drag him out of the Warsaw–Moscow plane. What he knew was that he’d probably be beaten, electrocuted, and strappadoed to the ceiling.
For more than half a week, the Polish Border Guard were following the deportation procedure, depriving Nurmagomed, a Chechen refugee, of his right to defend himself. All this in spite of the European Court of Human Rights prohibiting expulsion. The authorities said that they were following the Internal Security Agency’s orders. But to think that deporting terrorism suspects to Russia serves our security is insane.
Poland: a home for those who broke free
Nurmagomed already knew it all: electric shocks, handcuffs, and dark basements. He fled Chechnya with his mother in 2009 after Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime nearly killed him, and before that — repeatedly detained and tortured him. Nurmagomed’s brother fought against Russians during the war, when using violence against the families of militants was a common practice.
In 2009, Russia officially announced the end of the Chechen War, telling the world it was the end of the ‘antiterrorism operation’. Power had already been consolidated in the hands of the Kadyrov family, who was allowed to suppress the rebellion by any means, including torture and murder. Kadyrov was quick to learn that a climate of fear worked well, so since then not only critics of the regime have been falling victim to murder and torture, but even their distant relatives and entirely random people.
In 2009, the Polish authorities had no doubts that Nurmagomed’s family could not return to Chechnya — he and his mother were granted subsidiary protection. As his brother fought in the war, the whole family was in danger if they stayed in Russia, the justification said.
Psychiatrists confirmed that Nurmagomed suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and that he was a victim of violence. Soon after, Nurmagomed left for Germany and started a family with three children.
A plane to Moscow
In 2018, the Polish authorities unexpectedly initiated proceedings to revoke Nurmagomed’s international protection. According to their decision, the situation in Russia has changed and Nurmagomed is a security threat. He lived abroad at the time the decision was made and learnt about it during a visit to Poland. He couldn’t make it back to Germany — he was detained. On the same day, the Border Guard initiated proceedings to oblige him to return to Russia and several hours later — which in practice means there were no proceedings — the decision was made.
Nurmagomed wasn’t informed about details and the case files were made secret. There was an Internal Security Agency document in them. He was supposed to await deportation in the Centre for Foreigners in Przemyśl in southeastern Poland. He then contacted rights group the Association for Legal Intervention.
As he was in danger of immediate deportation, the association’s lawyers immediately applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to introduce interim measures, i.e. temporary provisions forbidding deportation. The court issued them almost immediately and then extended them. On 4 July, it forbade the Polish authorities from expelling Nurmagomed until all proceedings are complete.
Despite this decision, on 21 June, police took Nurmagomed from the detention centre, took him to Warsaw, and placed him in a Moscow-bound aeroplane. Phone calls and interventions from his lawyer did not help. The authorities were not reacting to calls to respect the ECHR’s decision and observe the constitution, or reminders that Poland is bound by the rulings of the European court. Appealing to empathy or reason didn’t help either — the authorities remained deaf to the argument that a man could die and neither he nor his lawyer knew anything about the reasons for deportation.
At around 10:00, something changed — a decision was made behind the closed doors. The deportation was halted and Nurmagomed was asked to leave the plane. He was taken back to Przemyśl, while his belongings and phone went to Moscow.
Secret files and the right to defence
Why do Polish authorities want to return Nurmagomed to Chechnya? There isn’t much information on this. The Polish Foreigners Act provides that international protection may be withdrawn if justified for defence, state security, public order, or protecting state interests. In such cases, it’s possible to deport a person immediately — even before the end of proceedings.
A person, however, must not be deported if there is a risk of death or torture or there is no good evidence that the person is a security threat.
In Nurmagomed’s case files, his lawyer, Małgorzata Jaźwińska, says there not the slightest bit of information that could prove this. No criminal charges were pressed, no evidence was presented.
In February, the State Press Agency reported Nurmagomed’s arrest. The report said more than the court files do. ‘As a result of cooperation between officers of the Internal Security Agency and Border Guard in Warsaw, Russian citizen of Chechen origin Nurmagomed was detained. The foreigner was associated with terrorist organisations and engaged in providing logistical support to such organisations’, the report read. The report also says that Nurmagomed was connected to Azamat Bayduyev, who was deported from Poland in 2018 on the Internal Security Agency’s request.
There are many doubts. It’s unclear why no Western country detained Nurmagomed for so long. His refugee status was revoked in June 2018, yet he walked free until 30 January when he visited Poland.
The Russian connection also raises questions. In early May 2017, Russia issued an arrest warrant for Nurmagomed despite his not having lived in Russia since 2009. Russia has lately been issuing a lot of such warrants for refugees it seemed to have forgotten about. If it turned out that information received from Russia is the reason for deporting a Chechen, we would be dealing with a serious crisis in human rights and international protection.
Azamat Bayduyev’s case was similar. During the First Chechen War in the early 1990s, Azamat’s father was a bodyguard of Zhovkhar Dudayev, the leader of the Chechen independence movement. The Bayduyev family had to flee. The family received asylum in Poland and then left to the West.
Bayduyev was detained in Belgium and was sent to Poland — the country who granted him asylum and was responsible for him. Security risks were named as the reason. It was alleged that he was in Syria, but nothing specific was disclosed. Many people that didn’t believe these charges protested in his support. Azamat’s whole family with six small children stayed behind in Europe.
Azamat knew what awaited him in Chechnya. On the way to the airport, he tried to slit his wrists. After arrival, he disappeared — that’s usually when people are detained and tortured. Eventually, he ended up in prison. Russian rights groups say he is alive only because of the noise Polish media made about his case.
Why does Poland let suspected terrorists out?
There are more questions than answers in the cases of both Nurmagomed and Azamat. For each of them, it is impossible to rule out that they had terrorist links, even though many people believe they did not. It is possible that they committed crimes on the territory of the European Union, for which they should be convicted. The problem is that they were not.
Do we even know where we send terrorism suspects to? Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya is a place of mass executions, murders, abductions, disappearances, rape, torture, intimidation, extortion, fabricated criminal cases, and monstrous corruption. Chechnya operates outside of Russia’s legal system — with Russia’s approval.
There is more than one scenario here.
First of all, Nurmagomed could be killed. The majority of people that Poland deports to Russia are handed over to the Chechen security services (many of them hand themselves over knowing that they cannot hide in other parts of Russia). Such a person is then subjected to torture and forced confession. Every person reacts differently to torture and some people die under it.
Some people are intentionally killed, like Apti Nazyuyev, who was deported from Norway. In 2013, he was found dead in a river with his teeth broken, nails in his body, shattered knees, and a broken skull.
Or Umar Bilemkhanov, who was found dead in 2012 after being tortured with electric shocks. Or 27 other men who were murdered en masse in January 2017, as Novaya Gazeta reported.
The second scenario: Nurmagomed gives a confession under torture and goes to prison. The way in which Bayduyev was detained fits the pattern of how Chechen security services operate. They’re usually a group of masked men — often without official uniforms. They drag a person out of their house, push them into a car, and then it is not known for some time where this person is. In reality, they are kept in basements of unmarked official buildings or police stations and tortured.
Some people are never found, some return in a very bad condition, and some others make it to prison. Faced with pain and fear, people admit to anything their captors want them to, often implicating innocent people in the process. People know that if someone disappears this way in Chechnya, they’re almost always subjected to torture.
Marta Szczepanik from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and author of the report on Chechnya, ‘The Republic of Fear’, told Polityka that Chechen law enforcement is held accountable through quantitative statistics, which might be the reason for the inflated rates of terrorism or crime, while the courts are deeply dependent on the local authorities despite being formally a part of Russian judiciary.
According to Yelena Milashina, a Russian journalist covering Chechnya, torture is applied in almost all criminal cases and Chechens detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) are often handed over to Chechen security services as they’re considered the ones responsible for doing the ‘dirty work’. Chechnya is to the FSB what Guantanamo is to the US.
However, another scenario is also possible — Nurmagomed could be released.
Russian authorities might disagree with the European governments and rule that the terrorist suspect didn’t commit any crime. Chechnya might also not be interested in convicting him. It could be much more beneficial for the authorities to make Nurmagomed join Kadyrov’s security services. There have been cases of people forced to fight in Syria or in Ukraine. A ‘broken’ refugee, seeing no other way out, might as well just go for cooperation with the regime.
Paradoxically, someone who is accused of fighting in Syria can end up in Syria by being deported.
Sending people back to Russia means that European countries have no guarantee that they will be held responsible for the crimes they are accused of. There is also no guarantee that they will not return — they themselves, or their problems. What is there to achieve by sending people to death except for supporting the local regime? Do such actions help stabilise the Caucasus or democratise Russia? Is undemocratic Russia safe for Europe?
At this point, it’s impossible not to wonder why the EU would release a person who has committed a crime on its territory. Why would Poland not officially charge such people and hold fair trials and imprison them if convicted? It is a standard procedure to charge a person who is suspected of committing a crime. What happened in the EU should be cleared up in the EU.
Nurmagomed’s case reveals a dangerous tendency — a very Polish and undemocratic one. In a democratic state, a person has the right to a fair trial, access to information, transparency of charges, and defence. They also have the guarantee that the court’s decisions will be respected. In Nurmagomed’s case, it was the opposite — the authorities carried on their deportation procedures despite the ECHR’s ruling.
This is not the first time for Poland. Belarusian lawyer Mikita Matsyushchankau and Polish lawyers from Adwokaci na Granicy (‘lawyers at the border’) remember eight interim measures issued by the ECHR in relation to Poland. Each of these cases was about refugees who tried to enter Poland. The Border Guard refused to receive them or proceed their requests for asylum. Many such decisions by ECHR were not respected.
This is something new for Poland. Only a few years ago, disrespect for the judiciary was the domain of countries such as Russia, which Poland distanced itself from, considering it to be a country ruled by despotic and demoralised power.
‘We only want Poland to respect the law’, Aleksandra Chrzanowska from the Association for Legal Intervention, which is providing Nurmagomedov with legal assistance, tells Polityka.
‘What we’re dealing with now is a Kafkaesque situation. Our client doesn’t know what he’s accused of and this renders the possibility of defence impossible. You can accuse anyone of having been involved in terrorist activities. Accusing people or groups of terrorism is a part of a disturbing trend of ruling by fear. Accusing someone of terrorism is the best way to get rid of someone — after all, we all care about state security. It’s enough to make an accusation and make defence impossible. In a democratic state with the rule of law, such situations shouldn’t be taking place. These are methods straight from totalitarian countries’, Chrzanowska said.
The deportation has been temporarily halted, but Nurmagomed can’t feel safe — it can be resumed at any moment as soon as the media buzz dies down.
The deportation has been temporarily halted and Nurmagomed has been released from the guarded centre, but he can’t feel safe. The deportation can be resumed at any moment as soon as the media buzz dies down.