Chechnya: a dangerous silence

5 November 2018
A sign in Grozny reading ‘Let the justice triumph’ (Dominik K. Cagara /OC Media)

Many families in Chechnya tell of young male relatives who have either disappeared without trace or are being held in detention, suggesting such cases are not rare.

‘Don’t think I would condone [his actions] if he were guilty, but at least let him be tried and sentenced. They won’t even tell me where he is!’ says Amalia (not her real name) from Chechnya. Her nephew disappeared last year and she has received no news of his whereabouts since. Amalia is certain he is being held by Chechnya’s security forces.

‘I have three nephews. The eldest is missing. I raised them from infancy — my brother is disabled and was widowed early. I raised them on my own — I sent them on to higher education.’

‘It’s true there is no work here. The authorities share the available resources among their relatives — jobs are given on the basis of nepotism. As a result, people with no qualifications get positions of authority.’

‘If you start to demand things according to the law, Kadyrov’s men will come at night with automatic weapons and take your sons. There is no law here. So we are afraid to speak out, we want to be left to live normally,’ Amalia’s speech is interrupted by sobbing.

Amalia approached OC Media to write about her nephew’s disappearance, but fear made her change her mind. She continues to search behind the scenes through her contacts — she even offered local security forces money in exchange for information about her nephew, but to no avail.

She says the police have refused to accept her statement about her nephew’s disappearance, which she considers a sure sign that he is being held by them.

‘He has travelled outside Chechnya several times to find work but he always returned quickly, saying that he missed his family — me, his sister, and his nephews. And now he’s been gone for so long. He must be in the republic! He doesn’t even have a passport and his ID is with me. If he were free, he would have got in touch.’

‘I’ve heard that there are underground prisons in Chechnya that have no windows or doors, it’s possible he is being held in one of these. If we could just know where he is! We’re a part of Russia after all, so why don’t they search for him — or do Russian laws not apply here?’

Relatives of the disappeared or those accused of terrorism (often on fabricated charges), are often too afraid to approach human rights defenders, hire a lawyer, post in social media, call journalists, or give their names.

The security forces are known to warn off families, threatening that such activity could lead to repercussions against their relatives in jail as well as against family members on the outside.

Nevertheless, there are some who break the code of silence and through tears of fear, approach journalists — if not to seek salvation, then at least understanding.

Amalia claims she approached Russian rights group Memorial but they were unable to help her as the head of their Chechen office is currently facing criminal charges for alleged drug possession. His colleagues and friends say that the accusations and the process itself are absurd but that they cannot help.

[Read on OC Media: No justice for Chechen Memorial head — again]

Amalia asks for a second time to write an article about her predicament — to name her missing nephew — but she again changes her mind. In the struggle between despair and fear, fear gets the upper hand. Amelia takes our word that her story will be anonymous.

‘Even if you are abroad you cannot feel secure’

Madina and Ibragim (not their real names), left Grozny to escape the war and destruction of the early 2000s. Their only son grew up in peaceful Lithuania; he was their pride and joy and excelled at school and college.

In June he decided to go to Chechnya to meet a girl with whom he had been corresponding online; she was his first love.

He announced to his family that he was going to get married, but within a week of arriving to his historical homeland, he was arrested and accused of plotting an armed attack on the military.

His parents have learned through local contacts that their son is being held in a detention facility and that the accusations against him are based on a post he is alleged to have made online about attacking the Chechen security forces. Following these events, his would-be bride disappeared.

Another Chechen woman recounts a similar ‘love story’ involving a relative who lived in Austria and subsequently fell into the hands of the Chechen security forces. A girl approached him, adding him as a friend on a social media site. This was followed by communication over Skype. He told her he had feelings for her, and a month later, the girl suggested they meet in Chechnya.

‘They arrested him at the airport — they said he had come to recruit fighters to go to Syria! I don’t think his knowledge of Syria extended beyond discussions on social media. He probably clicked “like” on something he shouldn’t have’, she says.

A seditious ‘like’

Musa Lomayev fled to Europe as a refugee thirteen years ago and now documents crimes committed by the Chechen authorities against basic human rights. He confirms that there is a practice of sending female agents to seduce not only opposition activists but even simple bloggers.

‘I know of several cases where men in hiding, including inside Chechnya, were hustled out. With the help of bogus or even real “brides” they can track them down — even experienced militants were caught like this.’

‘With the help of recruited girls, they also find out who is hiding online behind the nicknames and anonymous user pics criticising Kadyrov. They even tried to figure me out like this.’

‘And now, not only abusive texts and comments are considered “seditious”, but also “likes”, reposts, or even a subscription to certain bloggers’.

‘The goal is to punish resisting the authorities, for opposition to the authorities, to make it as sensitive and painful as possible.’

‘Kadyrov himself says that everyone who says a word against the authorities will answer for it. The same was said by Abuzayd Vismuradov [commander of the Chechen National Guard Spetnaz forces], who promises to get to everyone. Magomed Daudov, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, call sign Lord, threatens, ‘you will not hide from us.’

‘This suggests that any criticism, even small, is punished. If someone decides to hide behind a false name and live peacefully, they are deeply mistaken.’

Lomayev says that once the authorities discover the identities of ideological opponents, police can then bring this to their relatives in Chechnya and say: ‘your son, or nephew, who lives in Germany or France, he is slinging mud at the head of the republic. Is your family dissatisfied with our government?’

After such a visit, they will call their relatives in Europe and try very hard to discourage them from criticising the authorities.

Lomayev says that fear has overcome many in Chechnya.

‘Even if their child is killed in front of them, they will not say anything, they will wait in silence whether they will be given the body. The Chechen people in Chechnya have been brought to such a limit today.’

The burden of silence

Another reason for families of the accused to keep quiet is the promise that their loved ones will receive softer sentences if they do not speak out. The recent high-profile sentencing of 14 people from Chechnya’s Kurchaloy District for ‘forming an illegal paramilitary group’ demonstrated this practice.

The families maintained their silence throughout the year-and-a-half long investigation and the brief trial that followed. But now they have begun to speak out, albeit anonymously, as the authorities have not kept their side of the bargain. Instead of short sentences, their relatives received sentences of 9–10 years in prison for allegedly preparing an attack on the security forces.

One of those standing outside the court awaiting the sentencing filmed the reaction of relatives: shouts of indignation and women crying. The clip, which was widely shared among Chechens through online messaging groups, provoked a new wave of mute despair.

[Read on OC Media: Fourteen men convicted in ‘secret terror trial’ in Chechnya]

Those who had kept silent about the fate of their relatives who were involved in other cases, became convinced that rather than benefiting them, silence would only play into the hands of the police, the prosecutors, and the courts.

Chechen officials are actively trying to silence this noise — they declared the video from outside the court to be a ‘provocation’ made by an unknown provocateur.

The Chechen Minister for national politics, Dzhambulat Umarov, personally assured Chechens that the clip was fake, and state television station Grozny TV broadcast an interview with three of the brothers of the accused in which they stated that their relatives were guilty of terrorism.

WhatsApp — an island of freedom

Chechen groups on the WhatsApp messaging service remain the only form of mass communication not under the government’s control. Several of them also connect Chechens who are living abroad.

Important information and videos quickly spread through WhatsApp and accumulate tens of thousands of views. This wave of information reaches the press and even the authorities themselves.

In such cases, the authorities first investigate and contact the source, and secondly prepare two reactions — an official explanation and a search for the creators of the video.

There have been a number of cases where critics of the Chechen government have been made to apologise for their internet posts in front of the Chechen leader on camera.

[Read on OC Media: Public humiliation — the political trend sweeping through the North Caucasus]

After the sentencing of the people from Kurchaloy, a call was sent out on the messaging app for people to gather in the centre of Grozny and protest against extrajudicial killings, fabricated cases, and illegal sentencing.

People came, and they were many. Nevertheless, the event was not destined to take place, as people were prevented from gathering by national guard troops who tightly patrolled the city centre.

Not the best alternative

As rights defenders recognise, when protest is suppressed, it goes underground and can become violent. Chechnya is no exception. Protestors here are not only significantly radicalised, but also getting younger.

On 20 August, one police officer and one attacker were killed during an attack on a police checkpoint. The eldest of the attackers was 18 — the youngest just 11.

The Chechen authorities love to decorate their towns; in the evenings their centres glow with the light of a thousand lamps. Mosques, parks, flower gardens — everything shines and shimmers like a Christmas garland. Tourists are brought to Grozny to be delighted and impressed, while between empty, shining skyscrapers go Chechens, bound by fear.

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