‘Everything is still just as bad now as it was yesterday’ The head of Russia's ‘Committee Against Torture’ explains the new evidence of summary executions in Chechnya
On July 23, the human rights groups “Memorial” and the “Committee Against Torture,” together with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, held a press conference where they presented new evidence of torture, abductions, and summary executions in Chechnya in January 2017. The team of journalists and activists obtained testimony from witnesses who were held at that time at the same police base that reportedly houses Chechnya’s “secret prison.” Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spoke to Igor Kalyapin, the chairperson of the Committee Against Torture, about how he expects the new evidence to influence the human rights situation in Chechnya and Russia more broadly.
In late January 2017, according to reports by Novaya Gazeta, authorities at Chechnya’s “Akhmat Kadyrov” police and inspection base executed 27 people previously arrested during raids connected to the murder of a Grozny police officer a year earlier. Chechen officials have denied these allegations, and the Russian North Caucasus Federal District’s Investigative Committee refused to open a criminal case, after it was unable to verify the claims. Novaya Gazeta and Memorial say the preliminary investigation was “biased” and “cursory,” arguing that officials “deliberately sabotaged important oversight activities” and concealed evidence.
In September 2018, Memorial and Novaya Gazeta obtained new evidence in the so-called “Case of the Twenty-Seven” from 14 people in Chechnya’s Kurchaloyevsky District. The latter group was arrested in January 2017 and held for several months at the same “Akhmat Kadyrov” police base, but it wasn’t until March 2019 that they were charged with felony counts of participating in illegal armed formations and trafficking explosives and explosive devices.
The Shalinsky City Court ultimately sentenced the “Case of the Fourteen” suspects to between nine and 10 years in prison. Relatives who’d remained silent, hoping for a milder punishment, now appealed to human rights activists for help. Other witnesses behind bars on other charges have also testified about Chechnya’s “secret prison.” The most detailed account has come from Adam Abdulmezhidov, who was convicted last year in Grozny of participation in an illegal armed formation. Andrey Karavaev, a lawyer with the Committee Against Torture, is his defense attorney.
Relatives under pressure
Committee Against Torture chairperson Igor Kalyapin told Meduza that lawyers can’t pursue cases without a witness who offers clear testimony and promises to see the case through, whatever the pressure from the authorities. Prosecutors have tried to discredit Adam Abdulmezhidov by arguing that he wasn’t arrested until March 25, 2017, though there’s strong evidence to suggest he was secretly abducted on January 13 (at work, no less), and held at the secret prison until he was actually charged in late March. Kalyapin says the Chechen authorities pressured Abdulmezhidov’s family into signing statements dating his arrest on March 25, but ATM bank records and other evidence disproves these claims.
“There’s testimony saying that the relatives were forced [to sign those statements], and all the other evidence [showing Abdulmezhidov’s innocence] was simply ignored,” Kalyapin explains. “This is the principle that guides the Investigative Committee’s work not just in Chechnya, but across Russia generally, whenever investigating crimes by the police. Irrelevant facts fill case files, so they can look busy. And the facts that actually say something are thrown out, as if they didn’t exist.”
Asked if Abdulmezhidov is in danger, after coming forward with testimony about the secret prison, Kalyapin says the safest thing he can expect is a speedy transfer to the maximum security prison where he will serve out the remainder of his sentence of eight years and four months, which will remove him from his current Chechen pretrial detention facility.
After years of activism against torture, Kalyapin has grown pessimistic about the power of evidence to compel a response from Russia’s state officials. He says he’s spoken publicly and privately to figures as prominent as President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, and Attorney General Yuri Chaika, but it’s never led to results, he says.
Dedicated but disillusioned
Kalyapin told Meduza that he used to believe public opinion could force a solution, but he’s only seen it work in specific cases with well-known individuals, like journalist Ivan Golunov. “Our government doesn’t react to violations of the law so much as public outcry,” Kalyapin explains. And when the authorities are persuaded to act, he adds, they don’t usually go after the high-ranking officials actually responsible for the worst abuses. No matter how many facts human rights activists can dig up, it never seems to be enough to engage the general public.
“Everyone knows [about flaws in the justice system]. They understand everything perfectly well,” Kalyapin complains. “But you’ve got mortgage payments, and car payments on your Nissan Qashqai, and a wait list for kindergarten or school. And nothing changes.” Ten years ago, he says he told interviewers that Russia’s justice system and public opinion were changing, slowly but surely. He doesn’t say this, anymore.
The Committee Against Torture has lost much of its capacity in Chechnya, Kalyapin says. The organization was forced to relocate its office about 170 miles northwest from Grozny to the city of Pyatigorsk. The move robbed its activists of the credibility they enjoyed when local Chechens perceived them as “being in the same boat,” and almost no witnesses now come forward to the committee, Kalyapin laments, adding that the same thing has happened to Memorial. To make matters worse, some human rights activists (like Kheda Saratova, says Kalyapin) have “knowingly sided with the enemy,” using past achievements and associations with murdered colleagues to criticize figures targeted by the Chechen authorities.
The nature of Chechnya’s human rights problem has transformed, Kalyapin says, warning that “the threat hasn’t increased, but the sense of hopelessness has.” In the last year, he adds, the Chechen authorities (the “collective Kadyrov”) have “mastered an excellent way” of disguising the state’s reprisals against human rights activists as acts of public anger, orchestrating protests where the mob ransacks the offices of troublesome organizations.
Asked about reports by Novaya Gazeta and Memorial about the events leading up to the January 2017 executions, Kalyapin says he has his doubts about the theories they offer, and acknowledges that the Chechen authorities might have had real intelligence against the victims, albeit not the data presented officially. Maybe the victims weren’t connected to terrorist activity at all, and were in fact targeted in a personal vendetta by Kadyrov or Chechen Parliament Speaker Magomed Daudov. “Kadyrov is stung by pretty much anything that’s against Kadyrov,” says Kalyapin. “Some bureaucrat might have done something bad at some point — something that only a certain circle of people knows about. And now he’s afraid that everyone will find out, including the federal authorities. So of course he won’t miss the chance to shoot 10 people who find out about it. And he’ll shoot 10 more, just so everything’s clear. That’s reality in Chechnya.”
Amid such hopelessness, why does Kalyapin bother at all with human rights advocacy? He says only his conscience still drives him now. The Russian state and the public have let him down. He says the recent press conference to highlight the new evidence of torture, abductions, and summary executions in January 2017 was meant “to tell people that nothing is over, and that everything is still just as bad now as it was yesterday.” “But if they put up with it yesterday, and they’re apparently putting up with it now,” he worries, “they’ll put up with it tomorrow, too.”