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Torture and survival in Chechnya

17 November 2021
Akhmed Gisayev.

Exiled Chechen human rights activist and dissident Akhmed Gisaev told OC Media the harrowing story of his abduction, torture, and eventual escape from Russia. 

‘Before I was banished from my motherland, my life was like anyone else's in Chechnya’, Akhmad Gisaev a Chechen human rights activist and dissident living in exile in Norway, told OC Media

Gisayev was at one point an employee of the Internal Ministry of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, during a part of its brief period of independence. In 1999 he joined ‘Peace and Human Rights’, a law-enforcement monitoring organisation, months before the Second Chechen War broke out. 

He remained on the job even as bombs fell on the Chechen capital of Grozny, and the Russian military re-took control of Chechnya district by district. 

‘I lived every single day in terror, which was masked under seemingly harmless terms like “mopping-up operations” ’, he recalled. 

In the third year of the war, Gisaev, who kept up his human rights work, found himself working on the case of a young man allegedly tortured and murdered by a Russian special operation unit. 

After the young man’s funeral, Gisaev recalled being approached by a grey-haired old man who asked to take him to the Investigative Committee, where an investigation into the killing had already been opened. 

‘When we entered the detective’s office, still slouching in his armchair, the detective told me: “Do you even understand what you want to get yourself involved in? Look, it's no joke, it's Spetsnaz”.’

But Gisaev considered it ‘a matter of principle’ and he refused to stop working on the case. Just a few days after he met the detective, he was kidnapped. 

‘You are too smart, I will turn you into a fool’

‘On 23 October 2003, a group of special operations soldiers, clearly drunk, barged into the courtyard of my flat’, Gisaev remembered. ‘They trained their rifles on me and yelled out: “Don't move!” ’

He was frozen in place. All he could think of at that moment, he said, was what would happen to his family. 

The soldiers tore through his house, searching it. When they were done, they told Gisaev he had to come with them. He had no choice but to comply. 

‘I asked for one thing — to have the chance to say goodbye to my mother’, he said. 

The soldiers brought him to his mother’s house. Despite the autumn cold, he did not have shoes nor warm clothes on; the soldiers forbade it. As his mother wept at the news her son was being taken away, Gisaev promised her that ‘everything would be alright’.

After the brief stopover at his mother’s house, the soldiers brought Gisaev to Operational Search Bureau #2, a law enforcement unit that, in his words, carried out ‘special tasks’ for the Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia. 

Gisayev was taken to the fourth floor of the building to an office ‘with its windows completely covered with sandbags’ and was handcuffed to a radiator. 

‘With grins on their faces, they told me they were going to break me, and that after I confessed to supporting Aslan Maskhadov [the deposed third president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria]. 

The men of the Bureau also mocked him, with one taking a look at Gisaev’s fingers and accusing him of being a Chechen rebel commander because his fingertips were ‘too soft’ and his hands ‘too well taken care of’. 

‘You have not dug trenches with those hands of yours’, Gisaev remembers one of the agents saying. ‘You are probably some big shot.’

Gisayev did tolerate the mockery. He retorted that he had the status of an abducted person and had not been presented with orders for his arrest nor with charges against him. He refused to speak further. 

This intransigence was met with a flurry of baton hits that did not stop even as the sun came down, and his tormentors were replaced by the night shift. 

‘By nightfall, five or six people came to me. After wrapping my head with sticky tape, they handcuffed me and tossed me in the middle of the room’, Gisaev said.

His captors dubbed what happened next ‘marshmallow’ torture. It involved kicks, baton hits, and jumping on the back of the victim. After violence this severe, they told him, the human body becomes soft like a ‘marshmallow’.

When the marshmallow torture finally ended, the forced sleep deprivation began. The pipe Gisaev was cuffed to was hot, but he was denied water. Whenever he started to fall asleep, his guards would yell at him and wake him up again. 

The next morning the beatings renewed. According to Gisaev’s recollection, that day a man, who he surmised was an FSB colonel, in addition to a litany of other physical assaults, hit him repeatedly on the back of the head all the while telling him ‘ you are too smart, I will turn you into a fool’. 

Gisayev’s continued refusal to confess angered his captors.

‘The longest anyone lasted here was one of the Chechen fighters and it took a day and a half to crack him’, he recalls one of his guards, then drunk and ‘reeking of hash’, telling him.

The guard told him that if he confessed to having ties to the resistance, then the torture would end and he would simply be taken to jail. 

‘After these words’, Gisaev said, ‘he attached wires to me and started electrocuting me.’

Eleven days of torture in a flooded basement

‘By that time, my family already knew who abducted me’, Gisaev said. ‘They used to stand in front of the organisation’s main gates, as the staff of the Operational Search Bureau #2 would nervously walk past.’

This proved to be too much attention and he was given a brief respite from the torture. His guards threw a black bag over his head, tossed him in a car, and drove him out of the Bureau. 

His next destination was the Khankala military base located on the outskirts of Grozny. The whole drive, Gisaev said, his captors listened to music from Ukrainian pop star and drag queen Verka Serduchka.

The Khankala Military Base, Grozny.

‘I still remember that music’, he said. 

When they finally arrived at the base, one of the men in the car tried to reframe his role as a moral one. 

‘If you had confessed to the charge like we asked you to, then you would have served time in prison and stayed alive’, Gisaev remembers the man telling him. ‘But you won’t get out of here alive — I wanted to help you.’ 

Gisayev could not leave the car on his own. His body was nearly broken by 72 hours of torture. Instead, they dragged him out of the car, across a gravel courtyard and into a cellar. 

There he was subjected to further electric shocks, suspension with ropes, and even more beatings. At one point, his captors attached a respirator to his nose and mouth and pumped Ammonium chloride into it, burning his nose and throat. 

‘Five or six of them would stand in a circle and beat me with anything they had at hand’, Gisaev said. ‘They burned my arms with cigarettes: you could feel smoke and the smell of burning flesh — I still feel sick when I smell grilled meat.’

As his torture continued, water began to leak into the cellar and pool on the floor. At one point, Gisaev recalled, his captors brought bricks to build a little raised pathway so that their feet would stay dry. 

When his captors left him alone, Gisaev had time to take in his surroundings. Bullet holes riddled the cinder block walls stained with blood. The floor was littered with detritus including blood-soaked t-shirts, slippers, and electrical wires. 

It was when he saw the wires that Gisaev decided to stage his one and only escape attempt. 

‘With some effort, I reached one of the pieces of wire. I tried to nibble a little piece of insulation off so I could try to pick the handcuffs’, he said. ‘I failed. I ended up breaking my teeth.’

As his captors took breaks between beatings and stepped outside, Gisaev could overhear their conversations. They talked about thousands of dollars in cash, and even mentioned euros.

‘I knew that their salary was not in euros, which means they were discussing ransoms for abducted Chechens’, he said.

Gisayev was dragged out of the cellar and into the sun on the eleventh day and found himself face to face with his chief torturer, wearing a sheepish expression. 

‘He forcefully shook my hand and said, “Forgive me. I did not want to do all that — they made me. I was dispatched here. I will never come here again. Sorry” ’, Gisaev recalled.

They took Gisaev to another building at the base, where he found himself handcuffed to a bed in a small dry room. He remained there alone for several hours, wondering why they had brought him out of the cellar. 

Soon enough, his thoughts were interrupted by an answer to this question.

He heard the sounds of tires on the gravel outside — several cars had arrived at the base. 

Then, yelling. 

He heard one man shout, ‘get him out of there!’ and then he realised, they took him out of the cellar because it needed to be cleared for a new occupant. 

‘The whole night I could hear every hit of the baton landing on his body. Terrible screams echoed from that basement — I thought he would not make it’, Gisaev said. ‘I felt absolute helplessness. I could not relieve his pain, I could not help him.’

The next day, a group of men came to Gisaev’s room. They uncuffed him from the bed, put a black bag over his head, and took him for yet another drive. When the bag was taken off his head, Gisaev found himself in a familiar place. He was back at Operational Search Bureau #2. 

But instead of more torture, Gisaev found himself facing a sort of strange ‘courtesy’ with his captors gently asking if he wanted to eat, or if he was thirsty. 

They even gave nonsensical justifications for their actions. 

'You know we did not want all this, we did not want to torture you, but understand us please, we are just tools of the USA, Europe, and Israel’, he recalled them telling him. All of the men wore Russian military and Interior Ministry insignia. 

They even praised Gisaev.

‘We took you, but you bore it like a man’, he remembers one man telling him.

While he was at the Bureau his captors tried to convince Gisaev that his kidnapping was because he had been denounced by one of his neighbours. He did not believe them.

‘They specifically tried to kill my trust in my people’, Gisyaev said. ‘But I remain certain that Chechen society is one of the most resilient and cohesive in the world.’

A few hours later, Gisaev had his handcuffs removed and was brought into the courtyard. There he was met with yet another security official and an open gate. 

‘At the entrance of this ill-fated organisation right in the centre of Grozny, at a carpark, I was handed over to another person’, Gisaev said. ‘Having “courteously” put his jacket on me, he took me home.’

Free at last

On 8 November 2003, Gisaev found himself standing in front of his family’s home. Before ringing the doorbell, he rolled down the sleeves of his jacket to hide at least some of the bruises and burns.

When his parents opened the door, their son looked like a different man. He had lost 20 kilogrammes, had grown a rough short beard on his usually clean-shaven face, and could barely walk. 

Gisayev’s road to recovery was long. Moving his body brought him excruciating pain, even consuming a morsel of food ‘burned’ him from the inside. The fear stayed with him as well — and harassment from the security services was common. 

Many nights, his family would spirit him away to the home of one relative or another, lest he be kidnapped again or killed.

While he was free of the Bureau and the cellar, many of Gisaev’s rights remained curtailed. His passport and other key documents had been taken away, and he had no choice but to remain in Chechnya until his papers were renewed. 

But Gisaev did not just sit on his hands. As soon as he could properly walk again, he decided to hit back against the security services and paid a visit to the offices of Memorial, a Russia-based human rights organisation. They agreed to help him file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. 

The court ruled that the Russian Government had to act to ensure Gisaev’s safety. Of course, it was the Russian authorities themselves that Gisaev needed protection from, though, at the very least the ruling made the harassment from the security services stop — if only for a little while. 

After his visit to Memorial, Gisaev was approached by both Russian and international human rights organisations. He told them everything. 

‘People are afraid to talk about this torture and the illegal mechanisms they use there. As a result, everything remains unknown and is repeated over and over again. It is necessary to talk about it because only by making their atrocities public can state criminals be stopped’, he said. 

In 2007, Gisaev was offered a job at Memorial — he accepted. He would work with other victims of abduction and violence, as well as with the relatives of the disappeared and extrajudicially executed. 

A year later, his work expanded. Famed Russian-Chechen human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova — who, for her own personal safety, had been living in exile in the UK at the time — returned to the North Caucasus. 

Together with Estemirova, Gisaev investigated alleged arson attacks by Russian security forces, who had allegedly used the tactic as a form of collective punishment. 

The duo also investigated further cases of torture, killing, and evictions. 

Another abduction

In April 2009, the Kremlin announced that the war in Chechnya was over, the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ was ‘abolished’. For many, this only meant that life became that much more dangerous. 

All power in the region was transferred into the hands of the local administration, run by Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov — he spared no time in eliminating any perceived resistance or dissent to his rule.

Abductions and disappearances linked to local security services spiked and human rights advocates struggled to keep track. 

In late June, Akhmad Gisaev and Natalya Estemirova found themselves investigating the alleged abduction of a man named Apti Zainalov by Russian security forces.

They tracked down Zainalov to a hospital in the town of Achkhoi-Martan in eastern Chechnya. Upon discovering his location, Estemirova took it upon herself to approach Moscow Oblast’s Prosecutor, Yuri Potanin, and the FSB to request Zainalov’s release. 

A few days later, everything went wrong. 

On 15 July, Estemirova was abducted from her home. Witnesses reportedly said that they heard her crying for help as she was being shoved by unknown men into a car. Later that day, her body was found in Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and chest. 

Memorial, of which Estemirova was a board member, condemned the killing as an ‘extrajudicial execution’ carried out by security services. 

Despite the murder of his friend and colleague, Gisaev continued working on Zainalov’s case. He even returned to the hospital in Achkhoi-Martan, where he wanted to record proof that Zainalov had been confined there. At the time, Russian officials denied Zainalov had ever visited the hospital. 

‘I used a camera to record the deputy chief doctor’s confession of keeping Zainalov in their hospital’, Gisaev recalled. ‘He was taken there after being tortured, so his wounds could heal, and they could continue torturing him.’

On 15 August 2009, Gisaev was again accosted by the security services. As he walked home, he was stopped by several armed men who pointed rifles at him and forcibly took all the documents he had on him.

After this, Memorial told him it was no longer safe for him in Chechnya. On 16 August Gisaev flew to Moscow, where he sent the video recording of the doctor’s confession to the Investigative Committee of Russia, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Investigative Committee of Moscow.

Within the next few weeks, the Chechnya office of Memorial was forcibly closed by Russian authorities. Gisaev realised that if he remained in Russia, he might not survive. 

On 30 September 2009, he boarded a plane bound for Norway.

Exile

In Norway, Gisaev found a job at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a non-profit human rights organisation. He helped provide legal aid to local refugees and continued his North Caucasus work from a distance — primarily by designing protection mechanisms for human rights defenders still in the region. 

Gisayev also remained vocal in his criticisms of the Putin government and the human rights situation in Chechnya. 

In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian state had violated the prohibition on torture, Gisaev’s right to liberty, and his right to an effective remedy, awarding him €55,000 in damages

Since September 2015, he has run the Human Rights Analysis Centre, an NGO focused on helping Chechen refugees — especially those facing deportation back to Russia. 

He is proud of the work he does. 

‘We are very happy to report that we manage to save people literally in the final stages of their cases before their deportation to the Russian Federation’, he said. ‘Where fabricated charges, abductions, torture, and extrajudicial executions no doubt await them’.

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