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Igor Kalyapin, the head of the human rights organization Committee Against Torture

‘Ramzan Kadyrov doesn't really understand what human rights are’ An interview with the man who tried to end torture in Chechnya

Source: Meduza
Igor Kalyapin, the head of the human rights organization Committee Against Torture
Igor Kalyapin, the head of the human rights organization Committee Against Torture
Photo: Sergei Melikhov

Earlier today, Human Rights Watch released a new report, titled “Like Walking in a Minefield: Vicious Crackdown on Critics in Russia's Chechen Republic,” cataloging how Ramzan Kadyrov's regime has worked to silence “even the mildest critics” ahead of next month's voting, when Kadyrov stands for reelection. Two years ago, on December 15, 2014, Meduza's Ilya Azar spoke to Igor Kalyapin, then the head of the human rights organization “Committee Against Torture,” who had just appealed to Russia's Attorney General and the Investigative Committee regarding Kadyrov’s statements that the families of terrorists will be "kicked out of Chechnya without the right to return," and their homes will be torn down "to the foundation." In response to the human rights activist’s appeal, Kadyrov accused "certain Kalyapins" of funding militants. A mass rally was held in Grozny to support Kadyrov’s actions against human rights activists, and—the same day—the Committee Against Torture’s office in Grozny office caught fire, and Kadyrov’s men searched the office the next day.

The Chechen Interior Ministry said that it didn’t detain any of your staff and there was only "smoke" instead of a fire.

It’s pretty obvious from the photos whether it was fire or just smoke.

The Committee Against Torture Joint Mobile Group’s burnt lawyers’ office in Grozny, December 14, 2014.
Photo: Sergei Babinets / Facebook

In general, all the media and all officials in Chechnya have been talking about the Committee Against Torture for the last four days. They haven’t spoken the truth at all, like the MVD [Interior Ministry] in Interfax’s report. There’s a video of yesterday's fire and there’s a video from our security camera where armed men tried to break in before the fire [for security purposes, human rights activists constantly videotape what’s happening on the ground floor and the entrance and regularly report the whereabouts of the Committee Against Torture's staff].

As for the arrests, our guys called an investigator from the Investigative Committee, who came and talked to the police. He said, "The [police] say that you’re not under arrest." To that, one of our people said, "So I can go then?" and turned to leave. With that, several police attacked him and tied his hands behind his back.

Maybe they think, if you don’t write up an arrest report, it didn’t happen. But people were kept inside the burnt office for a long time and weren’t allowed to go anywhere. Moreover, they were searched, had their phones, cameras, and video recorders taken, as well as their laptops from their cars. How did the police explain this? That they handed everything over voluntarily? They didn’t even present a warrant to a lawyer.

Is the Interior Ministry going to look into it? Will you file a complaint?

Of course. We’ll submit a written complaint on Monday.

But honestly I’m not optimistic about the investigation because everyone knows we look into human rights abuses by Chechen police. But we’ll file complaints about everything and if the investigation doesn’t result in a criminal case, we’ll complain about that too.

Do you think this persecution of your group will ever stop?

We’re not talking about some conflict with the police or the government. We’re talking about the longstanding standoff between the Committee Against Torture and a number of Chechen police commanders. All of our run-ins with them are because of this. The crisis over the last few days is just the intensification of the standoff.

It's just that, this time, terrorist attacks killed people on December 4 and 5, and someone came up with the cynical idea to use the pain and suffering of relatives to settle scores with those inconvenient and hostile to these commanders of the organization. Over the last three days, there have been so many television reports, articles, and speeches by various officials that curse and say the most absurd things about us.

It’s understandable that the relatives of the killed police are not in a condition to process information critically. It's clear that they're overwhelmed by emotion, and I fully accept that [the victims’] relatives committed this arson rather than some hired thugs, officials, or any police.

I think that the stress of this situation will somehow allow us to get away. In the end, our staff will spend the night outside the republic for the foreseeable future, and maybe, people will calm down.

Sergei Babinets, Committee against Torture’s lawyer, who worked as a senior SMG (Joint Mobile Group) staff member in Grozny, told Meduza, "it’s dangerous to your life and health, but I will not stop doing my thing in any way." In addition to local Chechens working in the Grozny SMG, lawyers from other Russian regions rotate in and out every month. Babinets assures that "they're in a safe place." According to him, a video shot by the SMG security camera clearly shows that "three men, one of whom had a pistol, came [to the office] in the afternoon.” “We suspect it was them. And if the camera recorded them, and the police didn’t take the video from the disc, then it will be clear who set the fire,” Babinets says. He thinks that "things have reached a boiling point over the last ten days" and the fire was intended to destroy abduction case files in the SMG office. "Many of the electronic copies were saved but still a lot has been lost,” says the human rights activist. SMG staff intend to "go to law enforcement agencies about the arson, being pursued by a car of masked persons, and the illegal bodily search, vehicle search, and seizure of equipment by police.” "An atmosphere of police amusement and chaos reigned [during the search]. Although it's not complete, an inventory was nonetheless written up, but a lot of things have been broken," Babinets says.

Did the standoff reach this new level because of your complaint to the Attorney General and Investigative Committee demanding they look into Kadyrov's statement about deporting militants’ relatives from Chechnya?

Yes, without question. This was the trigger. My complaint certainly poured gasoline on the fire, but the fire was already burning. I can honestly say that this wasn’t my first complaint regarding Chechen senior officials and Kadyrov. I totally didn’t see this as a reason to get hysterical. I figured the complaint would simply be ignored.

It’s obvious that a prosecutor could, at the most, issue some kind of citation against the head of a region. Even so, I find it hard to imagine a prosecutor filing a citation against Kadyrov.

And so what was the point?

How else can we publicize that the regional leader violates the laws of the Russian Federation? Somebody needed to do it, damnit. I assumed that Kadyrov got worked up because people he’s responsible for got killed. His relative was killed. You can’t say anything rash. I thought everything calmed down and he really wouldn’t burn the houses down.

But two days later things got really medieval. People were thrown out of homes with few of their possessions and they set everything else on fire. This is exactly what leads to a new explosion of terrorism. Any fight against terrorism is a struggle for the population and for cutting the terrorists’ popular support. And Kadyrov’s own actions do exactly the opposite, and gives them popular support.

Understood. And what, incidentally, ever happened with these people? Have they already been kicked out of Chechnya?

I don’t know, unfortunately. We’ve been contacted by several people who are now hiding with relatives in Chechnya and asked us to help them get out. But we have a slightly different mission, we don’t have such means [to help them], so we try to connect them up with other organizations.

In fact, these people are refugees, their property has been destroyed. And why should neighboring regions have to solve the problem created in Chechnya? Not only do they have to provide refugees with housing and work, but also immediate shelter, because it is clear that they need looking after—to put it mildly.

Sergei Babinets holds his Front Line Defenders Award in the burnt office of lawyers from the Committee Against Torture Joint Mobile Group, Grozny, December 14, 2014
Photo Sergei Babinets / Facebook

Could the younger relatives of deported militants go into the forest and take revenge?

Absolutely! Not only can they go into the forest, but they could also go somewhere in Volgograd, Stavropol, and Krasnodar do the devil knows what.

In theory they should take their revenge out on Kadyrov and not the people in Volgograd.

I don't know on whom they’ll take revenge. As history shows, when people are grief stricken, including some of the people who come to us, they are not very selective about who gets their revenge. They need to take revenge on someone, and there will be preachers and ideologues who will place all the blame on the Russian kuffars [infidels] or the Russian police. You can incite an angry, pained person to do as you please.

Fifty thousand people gathered at the rally dedicated to the terrorist attack and specifically to you in central Grozny, and this is a considerable part of Grozny. Were these people ordered to show up or was this really sincere outrage, albeit force fed by Kadyrov's media?

Most people showed up because they had to. But people are really outraged by this terrorist attack. I wouldn’t say that they drove people to this rally. When I was a kid, we would also go to Soviet demonstrations because it was a day off.

But to what extent do people believe that human rights activists are all at fault?

The majority believe this, unfortunately. Because there isn’t alternative information about Chechnya here like in central Russia. The vast majority can’t watch anything except for what’s on television.

But at the end of the day, in Chechnya everybody will find things out from relatives and friends.

True, there’s word of mouth. And that's why I think that soon everyone will talk and understand. But today people heard from every wall jack that some “Kalyapin-Malyapins” are responsible for the deaths in the terrorist attack. It’s understandable that people have flown into a rage.

Someone wrote on the burnt walls of your office, "You only defend the rights of criminals, and what about my father’s rights?" Do you think this was done by the victims’ relatives or the police?

I have no idea what the person who wrote it had in mind. Maybe it was the son of a murdered police officer, or maybe it was about some other incident. I presume one thing or another. It is more likely that confused people are redirecting their hatred of the militants onto us.

Kadyrov obviously takes the liberty to make these statements and actions because Putin supports him.

That’s certainly the case.

At the same time, you’re a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights (SPCh). Chechen issues are certainly discussed there. After Nikolai Svanidze told Putin about the house searches of Crimean Tatars, their situation immediately improved. You can’t get through to Putin?

I haven’t had a direct conversation with Putin about this, unfortunately.

And why not?

Because since I’ve been on the SPCh, we’ve had two long and two short meetings with Putin. Every time there was a list of more pressing issues. At the last meeting, Putin uncustomarily ended the meeting early, and I didn’t have time to speak. And I was going to talk about police abuse and the Investigative Committee’s ineffective work. And not just in Chechnya.

Perhaps this crisis will bring the issue to the president’s attention because [SPCh chairman Mikhail] Fedotov has already sent a complaint to the president about the situation. It’s possible that the SPCh will make some kind of statement.

But is it possible to have any influence on Kadyrov?

It’s only possible to influence Kadyrov through Putin. Prosecutors and ministers don’t matter to him. Only Putin.

Your status as a human rights activist on Putin’s Council doesn’t impress him?

I have had several generals and many others, including judges from the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic, openly tell me that Kadyrov can ruin their careers and send them into retirement in a matter of minutes. "He'll make one call to Putin, and I’ll find myself retired, and that’s fine as long as I’m alive.” Everyone is hypnotized and dazzled by the fact that Kadyrov is a personal friend of Putin. Kadyrov positioned himself so, and Putin doesn’t seem to mind.

Will Putin keep turning a blind eye to Kadyrov's methods?

Whether Putin wants to influence Kadyrov is a very big question. I suspect that there’s an unwritten agreement between them: "You must have stability and peace, and how you achieve it is your business."

But December 4, [2014], broke this agreement.

Yes, Yes. It was partially broken but then it was quickly curtailed. Although in my layman’s view, with so many victims [14 police officers were killed in a firefight with militants in Grozny] it would make sense for them to take the terrorists alive. That would be the right thing to do since you need to get information. It's not like these people met by chance, dug up some assault rifles and went to Grozny. Someone financed and planned this somehow. But if they indeed decided to eliminate everyone, then you can’t do so without a lot of victims.

A rally in Grozny, December 13, 2014.
Photo: Elena Afonina / TASS / All Over Press

The Speaker of Chechnya told me that this was from the excessive zeal of the officers. That reminds me, Kadyrov has accused you of passing CIA money to terrorists. So they could open a case against you.

This is total nonsense. There is absolutely no evidence. But this was formulated quite subtly and insidiously. Kadyrov never manages to accuse me of anything [specific]. He says that he has information about a certain Kalyapin transferring money, and it’s necessary to verify whether this is Kalyapin or not.

Meaning that the court couldn’t pin that on you?

There's no basis to this slander. Nevertheless, it gave a very clear signal, and people understood that this Kalyapin financed the attack on Grozny. And there's no way to “appeal” against accusations like this.

The Committee Against Torture has the well-known cases of Islam Umarpashaev and Ruslan Kutaev. Did someone manage to help or is this a Sisyphean struggle?

We weren’t able to put a single police officer in Chechnya behind bars. At the same time, throughout the rest of the country, the number of police officers convicted of crimes is in the triple digits. From this perspective, we haven't achieved anything.

Of all the victims who’ve come to us, we were only able to save one person: Umarpashaev.

True, people have repeatedly been awarded compensation in Russian courts and the European Court on Human Rights to the tune of tens of millions [of rubles]. But I view the fundamental results differently. For example, for the work on Umarpashaev’s case, which is still being investigated, we still forced police to go in for questioning. This is a new precedent for Chechnya! Before this, no SK [Investigative Committee] officer could summon a kadyrovets [a soldier in Kadyrov's security forces] for questioning. That is, they could have, but then they would have beaten his face, and no one would show up for questioning. Now this is no longer the case.

There are cases where certain big and not-so-big commanders were fired. And the most important thing is that we don’t let up. This is a never-ending headache for the SK. So they would work [a case] for a year or so, and when the victims stopped asking about it, the case would be closed and archived. Now they have these cases hanging open and they’re piling up, and this sends a signal up the chain of command that there are issues that haven’t been solved. This will lead to some sort of solution, sooner or later.

According to the SMG lawyers in Grozny, the number of kidnappings have decreased. Do you think it’s because Chechen Interior Ministry officials have begun to work more efficiently?

The number of kidnappings has greatly reduced in the last couple of years. Although, it’s possible that fewer people have turned to us because human rights activists are a synonymous with a foreign agent and an enemy of the people.

Previously we have had virtually no allegations of torture, now they are appearing again. I was right in the detention center in Grozny with people who complained of torture. Before, these people would just not end up in jail. They were beaten and tortured to death or tortured and then killed. Seven years ago, [Ruslan] Kutaev didn’t have any chance to go before a judge and get four years. In 2008–2009, it was exactly like that. Now these people with electrical burns on their arms are brutally beaten, but nevertheless get sent to jail.

Kadyrov says, "I defend human rights in Chechnya." Do you think he’s joking or he really thinks so?

It’s not the first time he’s said these words and he does so quite seriously. I don’t think he really understands what human rights are. He thinks that human rights are something good for people. And since he considers himself the source of all good in Chechnya, it means he is the one and only human rights activist.

This text was translated from Russian by Sean Guillory.

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Ilya Azar