Local authorities are trying to silence even the mildest critics in advance of the September 18, 2016 election for the head, or governor, of Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The 56-page report, “‘Like Walking a Minefield’: Vicious Crackdown on Critics in Russia’s Chechen Republic,” describes how local authorities punish and humiliate people who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies. The report also details increasing threats, assaults, and detention of journalists and human rights defenders.
“Chechen authorities are tyrannizing critics and anyone whose total loyalty to the local leadership they think is questionable,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “Under the circumstances it’s very difficult to see how the election in Chechnya can be free and fair.”
The Kremlin appointed the current leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2007 after a protracted and bloody separatist armed conflict followed by years of Russia’s abusive counter-insurgency. The September 18 election will be the first time Kadyrov’s authority will be put to a direct popular vote.
The local authorities’ severe and sweeping crackdown seems designed to remind the Chechen public of Kadyrov’s total control and to contain the flow of any negative information from Chechnya that could undermine the Kremlin’s support for Kadyrov, Human Rights Watch found. Even the mildest comments contradicting local policies or government ideas can trigger ruthless reprisals – whether expressed openly, in closed groups, on social media, or through off-hand comments to a journalist or in a public place.
The Chechen Republic is part of Russia and its authorities are required by law to uphold Russia’s domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. Russia’s leadership is clearly aware of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights, but it has done little more than issue rare mild rebukes.
The report is based on more than 40 interviews with victims, people who are close to those who paid a price for their critical remarks, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and other experts.
The report documents the unlawful, punitive detention of critics, including through abductions and enforced disappearances. Detainees have been subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, and death threats, including threats against and physical abuse of their family members.
In one case Human Rights Watch documented, in December 2015 local law enforcement officials forcibly disappeared a man who had apparently made a flippant comment about Kadyrov. Two weeks later, his body was found battered and broken some forty kilometers from Grozny.
In another, police officials unlawfully detained, threatened, and ill-treated a woman and her three children in retaliation for her husband’s public remarks criticizing local authorities. Police officials beat the mother and the eldest daughter, age 17, and threatened them with death, in an effort to force them to persuade the father to retract his comments. In another five cases Human Rights Watch documented, law enforcement officials, or their apparent proxies, abducted people and subjected them to cruel and degrading treatment; four of them were forcibly disappeared for periods of time ranging from one to twelve days.
In five cases documented in the report, the authorities publicly humiliated people, forcing them to apologize publicly to the Chechen leadership or to renounce their supposedly false claims.
“The abuse we documented sends an unequivocal message of intimidation to the public in Chechnya and may be only the tip of the iceberg,” said Lokshina. “Some abuses never come to light because the climate of fear in Chechnya is overwhelming, and local residents have been largely intimidated into silence.”
The Chechen leadership has also intensified its onslaught against the few human rights defenders who still work in the region and provide legal and other assistance to victims of abuse, Human Rights Watch found. In the past two and a half years, law enforcement officials or their apparent proxies have on three occasions ransacked or burned the offices of the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (JMG). Thugs apparently acting as Chechen authorities’ proxies have physically attacked the group’s activists, and the Chechen government-controlled media have engaged in a massive smear campaign against the group.
For the past six years, the JMG has been practically the only organization on the ground that provided legal assistance to victims of abuses by local law enforcement and security agencies. It had to withdraw its team from Chechnya in early 2016 for security reasons.
The few people who dare talk to journalists, except to compliment the Chechen leadership, face ruthless reprisals. Journalists also find themselves at increasing risk when reporting from Chechnya. The report documents a 2015 case in which a journalist received death threats and another of a journalist who was arbitrarily detained while investigating a story. It also describes a 2016 attack by a group of masked men on a minibus carrying a group of Russian and foreign journalists from the nearby Ingushetia region to Chechnya. The attackers dragged the journalists from the bus, beat them, and set the bus on fire.
The Russian government should put an immediate end to the crackdown by the Chechen authorities. Rather than turn a blind eye to blatantly illegal acts of cruelty and humiliation, it should provide effective security guarantees to victims and witnesses of abuses, bring those responsible to justice, and foster a favorable environment for free expression and the work of human rights defenders.
“It’s long past time for the Kremlin to stop giving the Chechen authorities carte blanche when they violently violate human rights,” Lokshina said.