Chechnya: Where war on terror is murder racket
GROZNY, Russia, (AFP) - A shredded body, an explosive belt and an intact head was all that remained of a Chechen woman found in May 2005 in Grozny.
Two years later, the case has shed rare light on the gory mechanics of disappearances and murders in Chechnya.
Until last December the body was registered as that of a suicide bomber intercepted by men working under police captain Ruslan Asuyev.
But now Asuyev is charged with the kidnapping and murder of this young woman. The terrorist label, the federal prosecutor general says, was an invention Asuyev concocted to earn a promotion.
Due to "the desire to boost his service record and to get ahead he kidnapped and killed a woman, presenting her death as the elimination of a terrorist," the prosecutor's office said in a statement last month.
The office also said that though the total number of kidnappings and executions in the republic has dropped significantly in the last five years, there is an alarming "increase in the number of illegal armed groups including members of law-enforcement bodies" in Chechnya.
The admission marks a break from years of official denials, which up to now have said that forces under Moscow's control -- the army's special services, supporters of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and police with connections to former rebels -- had no link to the disappearances.
Local government officials say as many as 2,800 people had been listed as abducted or missing, according to Amnesty International.
But Memorial, a human rights group in the Chechen capital Grozny, said that up to 5,000 have disappeared since 1999, when President Vladimir Putin launched the second war in a decade to crush a Chechen separatist movement -- a conflict that human rights activists say has been marked by mass war crimes.
"We have denounced this kind of things for several years, but this is the first time that a Chechen policeman has been put on trial for kidnapping and assassination," said Natalya Estemirova, an expert at Memorial.
Sifting through documents from the 2005 case file, including gruesome details on the condition of the woman's body, she described a racket that extended back three years.
According to the prosecution documents, Asuyev's group of 14 men included former police officers and amnestied rebels.
They are accused of running protection rackets, seizing civilians for ransom and carrying out kidnappings and murders -- all under the cover of the fight against terrorism.
Asuyev's lawyer, Badrugin Bodylayev, refused to comment, other than to dismiss the accusations as part of a power struggle between different law enforcement bodies.
|Chechen youth walk in central Grozny. AFP
Prosecutors also refused to comment, but prosecution documents seen by Memorial allege that on May 6, 2005, Asuyev's men killed the woman in the street before carrying her body away.
They then attached an explosive belt which they detonated -- before writing up a report on the "liquidation" of a terrorist. Another case, also due to be tried soon, alleges that Asuyev killed Khamzat Gaitukiyev, a 30-year-old Chechen.
That time the procedure was different: officers proposed he join the police force then set him a test of opening fire on a car full of rebels.
Instead of ambushing guerrillas, Gaitukiyev found himself facing a vehicle full of law-enforcement officials who gunned him down as a "terrorist."
A group of investigators and police officers from the federal interior ministry and members of the criminal investigator's office (ORB-2) in Grozny finally caught up with Asuyev, who was hiding in the Astrakhan region of Russia. Nine of his colleagues were also arrested. But in the legal mess of Chechnya today even those investigating the criminals, such as personnel at ORB-2, play dirty, human rights activists say.
"These same police officers are involved in the escalation of the violence, with recourse to torture," said another source with access to the Asuyev case file who asked to remain anonymous. "The whole system is rotten."
In March the Council of Europe published a report denouncing the use of torture with impunity in Chechnya, singling out actions by ORB-2.
In Memorial's office, Zhabrail Abubakarov, a young lawyer, discussed such a case with Issa Khisimikov, a civil servant from the emergency situations ministry whose nephew was allegedly tortured by ORB-2. According to Abubakarov, the nephew Uvais and four other students were stopped by police in May 2006 in Grozny, accused of shooting Russian soldiers or police officers, then taken to ORB-2 where they were beaten and administered electric shocks.
After they "confessed," Uvais was charged with "eleven attacks involving use of explosives or automatic weapons" and put in detention, where he tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists.
His lawyer says he is innocent.
"I succeeded in proving that for at least six of the attacks, someone else had already been arrested, tried and sentenced or that Uvais could not have been in Chechnya at the time of the events," said Abubakarov, showing documents to back up his argument. "In the (Chechen) prosecutor's office, no one wants to get to the truth so that instead they can close the maximum number of cases," he said.
"The whole system is corrupt, from the police officer who carries out kidnappings to the judge who presides over trials. Everyone is making money or a career at the expense of locals."
MOSCOW (AFP) - Chechnya, which has fought two brutal separatist wars with Russia since 1994, is slowly rebuilding.
Its capital Grozny is the most heavily bombed European city since World War II, where residents cling to a fragile sense of peace emerging in scarred, impoverished neighbourhoods -- though violence is never far away.
To accompany our feature on Chechnya's slow recovery, here are key facts on the republic.
Chechnya is sandwiched between the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountain chain and the steppe and bordered by Georgia. It covers 15,000 square kilometres or 5,800 square miles.
1.2 million people before the 1994-96 war, including more than 450,000 ethnic Russians. The Chechens are part of the tiny Vainakh ethnic group, native to the Caucasus, and speak a unique language with no roots in any other tongue.
A recent Russian census found that the population was more than one million, but the result was met with scepticism given the large number of casualties in the war and outflow of refugees, including Russians. The Chechens have been mainly Muslim since the 18th century.
Grozny (meaning "threatening" in Russian), had a population of 450,000 before the first war, and 185,000 in 1996. In February 2000 Russian troops retook the ruined city following weeks of heavy bombardments.
Non-governmental organizations put the current population at less than half its original size, but official figures put the number in excess of 300,000.
Chechnya spearheaded resistance to Russia's colonisation of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also against Moscow at the start of Soviet rule. Under the leadership of Imam Shamil, it put up fierce resistance from 1834 to 1859.
It was made an autonomous republic, jointly with Ingushetia, under Stalin in 1934.
In 1944 Stalin ordered all ethnic Chechens and Ingush, about 600,000 people, deported to Central Asia on the invented premise that they had collaborated with Nazi Germany. Some estimates say a third died even before reaching their destination. Survivors were allowed to return home in 1957 during the Khrushchev thaw.
Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya proclaimed independence and in 1992 separated from Ingushetia. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched a military intervention in December 1994 which ended in 1996 with an accord that failed to address the region's final status. Aslan Maskhadov was elected president in January 1997 but was subsequently disavowed by Moscow.
A new conflict erupted in October 1999. In the two periods of conflict since the Soviet collapse about 100,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed.
In June 2000 President Vladimir Putin placed Chechnya under the control of a local administrator, former mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated on May 9, 2004. He was replaced by Alu Alkhanov who in turn was replaced by Kadyrov's son Ramzan in April 2007.
The republic has modest reserves of high quality oil that during the Soviet period was important for manufacturing aviation fuel. Grozny was also the location of a huge refinery, which Russian air and artillery strikes largely destroyed. Large engineering, concrete and canning factories were also destroyed, while the widespread use of landmines put a dent in once flourishing agriculture. Since the wars the economy has largely depended on black market oil refining.