Activists say both sides of the conflict -- both Russian troops and separatist rebels -- are guilty of abuse. Moreover, they say security forces operating under the control of Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, are also perpetrating much of the violence there.
The war between federal forces and Chechen resistance fighters is now in its fifth year, and it is the civilians who suffer most. It is not known how many civilians have been kidnapped, tortured, or killed in the republic. But the Council of Europe said last week that the Chechen office of the Kremlin's special rights envoy -- a post the Kremlin abolished last week -- received nearly 10,000 complaints of rights abuses between 2000 and April 2003.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. He tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Russian military is "regularly torturing, kidnapping, and killing people."
However, Roth says Chechen rebels have also committed atrocities, including "indiscriminate bombings and attacks on Russian civilians" -- most notoriously, the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in Moscow in 2002.
Thomas de Waal is a Caucasus expert at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. He says that now there are three, not two, forces responsible for violence in Chechnya -- Russian soldiers, separatist rebels, and pro-Moscow Chechen forces loyal to Kadyrov.
De Waal says it is still Russian troops who hold the greatest responsibility for the atrocities in the republic. But he says Kadyrov's forces are now clearly more and more involved in perpetrating the violence.
De Waal says the Kremlin is seeking to hand more power to the local administration. Not only has the Kremlin handed responsibility to rights-related issues to Kadyrov, it has given his security forces what de Waal says is free rein to terrorize civilians in order to achieve its ends: "The new policy is one of 'Chechenization,' which is to give more power and more responsibility to Kadyrov, which means that he, and his men, are now doing many of the things that Russian soldiers did before."
The director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Aslan Doukaev, agrees. He says he has the impression the Kremlin wants to deal with the continued resistance by inciting Chechens to fight against Chechens: "There's increasing evidence that the Kadyrov security forces are getting increasingly active, and it's very difficult to say who perpetrates most of the violence but it seems that the Russians are pinning great hopes on the Kadyrov security force in dealing with the resistance. Of course the Russians would love to turn this conflict in an inter-Chechen conflict."
Doukaev says modest estimates put at least 4,000 fighters -- many of them former prisoners -- under the command of Kadyrov and his son, Ramzan, who heads the force. Doukaev says Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused of masterminding numerous kidnappings and torture of civilians, and is also believed to operate a private prison in his ancestral village. His forces are widely feared in Chechnya: "Many accuse them of being behind a number of night kidnappings, night attacks on civilian targets," Doukaev said. "A lot of people say that they kidnap people for ransom as well. Some people say that they are also doing some racketeering."
The legal status of Kadyrov's special forces is unclear. Doukaev says there are no legal precedents for the president of an autonomous republic within Russia to operate his own personal security force.
Steve Crawshaw, the director of the London office of Human Rights Watch, says the situation in Chechnya poses a security threat not only to civilians in the republic but to everyone in the Russian Federation.
He says Human Rights Watch has tried to convey this message to the Russian government, but with little results: "My colleagues in Moscow are in constant contact with the Russian government but I would say they listen to us less that we would want."
Crawshaw says Russian society has yet to understand the wide-reaching impact of the violence in Chechnya, and that it is impossible to live safely in Moscow or anywhere in Russia until true stability is established in the republic.