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June 26 was the UN’s International Day in Support of Torture Victims. There are no credible government statistics on the use of torture in Russia, nor does the country’s Criminal Code include a separate article on torture; an organization called the Crew Against Torture is one of the few agencies working to help Russians who have been tortured. In their 22 years of work, the group’s lawyers have won criminal convictions for 159 law enforcement employees, but only six of those have come from Chechnya, the region the lawyers say is the worst offender. Meduza tells the story of one of the Crew Against Torture’s recent cases: that of the Yangulbayev family, a sworn enemy of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
52-year-old Zarema Musayeva last saw her daughter over six months ago, on January 20, 2022. That day, armed men in masks broke into their apartment in Nizhny Novgorod. Saying they worked for Chechen law enforcement, the men forcibly took Zarema away to Chechnya, not giving her time to get dressed or even to grab her medicine (Zarema has type II diabetes).
The officers claimed they had to interrogate Zarema in connection with an embezzlement case. Once they arrived in Grozny, though, they charged her with attacking an officer and arrested her for two months. They held the trial while Zarema was unconscious; after stating her name at the start of the trial, she fainted. When she woke up, she was in a remand prison cell.
Zarema Musayeva remains in the Grozny remand prison today. She tells her daughter about her new life through letters: she shares her cell with three other women, and they have a refrigerator and a TV. They sometimes spend entire days watching movies.
“I’m really glad the trials will begin soon,” she wrote in one letter. Her case was recently transferred to Grozny’s Leninsky District Court; she’s now being charged with embezzlement in addition to assaulting a police officer. She faces up to six years in prison for the embezzlement charges and up to 10 for the assault charges.
‘A rally of curses’
Zarema Musayeva was born and raised in Grozny. After graduating from Chechen State University, she started working as a cashier in one of the city’s main grocery stores. Then, in 1990, she met her future husband, Saidi Yangulbayev, who was 11 years older than her.
Saidi and Zarema were married just six months after meeting. Despite her husband’s protests, Zarema opted to keep her maiden name. The couple had four children: Abubakar (30), Ibragim (28), Baisangur (23), and Alia (21), their only daughter. Zarema stopped working in order to raise the kids. Saidi initially worked as an investigator, but later became an assistant to a federal judge, then to a justice of the peace. In 2012, Vladimir Putin appointed Saidi Yangulbayev to Chechnya’s Supreme Court.
10 years later, in January 2022, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov declared Saidi and Zarema’s family “accomplices to terrorists.” He also called for them to be “destroyed,” promising, “There’s a place for this family either in prison or underground.”
That same month, State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov addressed the family, saying, “Just know that [...] we’ll pursue you until we cut off your heads and kill you.” Other Chechen officials and law enforcement officers issued similar threats.
In early February, over 400,000 men (according to local pro-government media; judging by photographs, the number may have significantly smaller) held a rally on Grozny’s main square, where they threw photographs of the family on the ground, hit them with sticks, burned them, and “cursed” the family.
“If anyone cuts off my head, I’ll go to heaven, while those who did it will go to hell,” Saidi Yangulbayev said at the time.
In 2017, after years of intimidation, the family moved out of Grozny — first to Pyatigorsk and then to Nizhny Novgorod. For the next several years, they managed to hide from the Chechen authorities. But in the winter of 2022, they were finally caught — and Zarema was taken to prison in Grozny. “We thought that if we got further away from Grozny, closer to Moscow, the law would protect us,” Saidi told Meduza. “Not at all! They’ll [the Kadyrovites] find you no matter where you are. They’ll kidnap you and kill you.”
‘He declared a blood feud against me’
‘They tortured me from about nine at night until five in the morning (I heard the call to prayer — there’s a small mosque on the territory). They put a bag over my head, but they didn’t suffocate me; they just wanted to scare me. They shocked me with a direct current: they just stuck [my fingers] directly into an outlet, and 220 volts went straight through my body. I lost consciousness. They called in a doctor, and he said that if they continued, I wouldn’t make it.
Ibragim Yangulbayev first told Meduza about the torture he experienced at the Akhmat Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) base in 2019. According to him, he spent six months in the facility — from November 18, 2015, to May 4, 2016. His crime was making an anti-government post on social media.
Ibragim says he was brought to the base directly from Ramzan Kadyrov’s residence, where the Chechen police had also brought his father and older brother, Abubakar. In early 2022, this was confirmed by Kadyrov himself.
In the residence, Ibragim said, he and his relatives were beaten. “My nose was bleeding, and they told me to lick the blood off of the ground. I didn’t do anything — I didn’t even lower my head. Kadyrov got angry. He declared a blood feud against me in front of my father.”
After that, Saidi and Abubakar Yangulbayev were taken to the Russian Interior Ministry’s Grozny office, where Abubakar said he was tortured.
That night, on November 19, Abubakar said, his father was forced to write a letter of resignation from his Supreme Court position. The next morning, they were released.
“They warned us that if we complained to anyone, they would kill Ibragim,” said Abubakar. “And then they would come for us.”
Ibragim continued to criticize the Chechen government on social media, and in May 2017, he was taken from his home once again. Officers beat him, shocked him, choked him, and hung him up by his arms and legs, demanding he reveal who the administrators of his social media group were.
After three days of torture, a court sentenced Ibragim to 15 days in prison; soon after his release, he was charged again and sent to prison for a year and a half.
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In February 2021, the anonymously-run Telegram channel Alternativa 95 posted the following message: “The time has come to unmask the mysterious family behind the channel 1ADAT!” It included a link to an article about the Yangulbayev family.
1ADAT, or just Adat, first appeared in April 2020. Its anonymous creators describe the channel as a “people’s movement” whose goal is to help Chechen residents who have suffered mistreatment from law enforcement. Within a year, it had become one of the most popular opposition media sources in Chechnya (it currently has over 40,000 subscribers). In July 2021, Grozny’s Zavodskoy District Court banned the channel’s content on Russian territory, agreeing with the prosecutor that it published material of a “malicious nature” and justified “terrorist activities.”
Adat’s administrators deny the authorities’ characterization. “We work to support human rights, recording human rights violations, covering the population’s socio-economic problems, giving people a voice on various topics, exposing the lies of Kadyrov’s propaganda, and conducting and publishing our own journalistic investigations,” they said in a written statement to Meduza.
In September 2020, a video appeared on the Internet that showed Salman Tepsurkaev, one of the channel’s moderators, kneeling naked and apologizing for his work with Adat. After that, he can be seen sitting on a glass bottle. According to the Crew Against Torture, a day earlier, Chechen law enforcement officers had kidnapped Tepsurkaev in Gelendzhik and taken him back to Chechnya. His current location is unknown.
The article posted in Alternativa 95 also named another one of the channel’s administrators: Ibragim Yangulbayev. Two days after the post, Ibragim and his younger brother Baisangur left Russia. “The Kadyrovites were on the hunt,” he told Meduza.
To ensure his safety, Ibragim has kept his current location secret, which entails almost never leaving home. “I can adapt to anything,” he said. “Even under extreme conditions, I’ve gotten used to it. And in Europe, it’s not so hard to adapt.”
In late January 2022, the Chechen authorities opened a criminal case against Ibragim for publicly calling for terrorist activities. He was arrested in absentia and put on the wanted list.
'It felt like a war'
“For the first week after they kidnapped Mom, I felt like it was all a dream. That I would wake up and see Mom there. But I didn’t wake up — instead, everything just got worse,” said Alia Yangulbayeva, Zarema Musayeva’s daughter.
After her brothers left the country in 2021, Alia and her parents decided to follow them. But it took them almost a year to get all of the necessary paperwork. In late December, the Chechen authorities kidnapped 40-50 of their relatives. It wasn’t the first time other family members have been targeted, but it was the first time so many of them had at once.
On December 28, Abubakar, Alia’s brother, was arrested while leaving his home in Pyatigorsk. The police interrogated him about his brother, Ibragim, and his role in the Adat Telegram channel. They released him after he told them Ibragim had refused to speak to him about it.
“Abubakar immediately left [the country],” said his father, Saidi. “And that’s when I realized they were coming for us.” The entire family was scared, Alia said:
They told my brother that everyone knew we were living in Nizhny Novgorod. When our relatives were kidnapped, I started taking time off work and going home in a taxi. Sometimes I wouldn’t even go to work. We were under pressure. Every day, there would be knocks on our door; we kept the lights off, the TV off, and we tried not to speak. We didn’t go to the store, of course; we didn’t go anywhere at all. It felt like we were in some kind of war.
The Yangulbayev family was supposed to leave the country on January 21. But just one day before, the Chechen authorities broke into their apartment. “I ran to Mom,” Alia recalled. “I started screaming so that she would know they’d broken in. And so our neighbors would hear and come help us. But when I looked in her room, Mom wasn’t there. She was hiding in the wardrobe. She had been packing her things [to leave] right before, and there were only a few things left to pack.”
“My wife, when they were taking her, said, ‘Look, don’t come [to Chechnya] unless they forcibly take you there. You won’t solve anything, and you’re more useful here. Don’t come with me — don’t leave our daughter alone,’” said Saidi.
Two days later, on January 22, Saidi and Alia left Russia. They’re currently located “in a European country.”
“Of course we don’t feel safe,” said Saidi. “Kadyrov and the people threatening us would never come here themselves. [...] But they have money — they can find a hitman, they can do anything they want. That’s a real danger.”
By mid-March, two months after she was kidnapped, Zarema Musayeva’s health had deteriorated. At one of the investigation proceedings, her lawyer, Natalia Dobronravova, said, Zarema was rolled out in a wheelchair. “She was shaking all over,” she told Meduza.
Soon after that, Musayeva’s defense team lobbied for her to go to a hospital for treatment. She’s doing better now, said Dobronravova, but if the authorities stop giving her diabetes medicine, which is being paid for by “outsiders,” things could take a turn for the worse.
Zarema’s case has been given to Leninsky District Court judge Akhmed Bashuyev — the same judge who sentenced her to 15 days in prison when she was unconscious in January.
“I’m preparing for Mom’s return. I believe and I hope that she’ll come back to us,” said Alia. “If they end up releasing Mom, I can imagine my life afterward very well. If they don’t release her, I just don’t see a reason to keep living.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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