Prague, 3 June 2005 (RFE/RL) – Seven relatives of Aslan Maskhadov were released on 31 May and returned home to Pervomayskoe village near the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia’s Memorial human rights center announced yesterday.
Usam Baisaev of Memorial spoke to RFE/RL from Nazran, Ingushetia, today. He says the health of Maskhadov’s brother deteriorated seriously in detention.
“Yesterday our staff members met with [other] relatives [of Maskhadov] who had not been kidnapped, who said that seven of their relatives had returned home, that Aslan Maskhadov's brother was gravely sick and that was most likely why they had been freed," Baisaev said. "Those who were holding them must have thought that if he died in detention it would cause a scandal."
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Aleksandr Nikitin, deputy prosecutor-general of the Chechen Republic, as confirming the seven people were released. But Nikitin added that an eighth captive, a nephew of Maskhadov accused of connections to illegal military groupings, remains in detention.
The Memorial organization says the seven freed hostages had been kept captive in dark rooms and were exhausted. The day before their release, they were told they would be freed and were given the opportunity to take a bath for the first time since they were kidnapped in December.
It is still not clear where they had been held and by whom.
Most probably Kadyrov's people had seized them but then handed them over to the [Russian] military." - Baisaev
Rights activists have repeatedly said that the kidnappings were the work of Russian troops or their Chechen militia allies attempting to pressure Maskhadov prior to his death in an assault by Russian security forces on his hideout on 8 March. Russian authorities have denied such accusations.
Last January, the Chechen Prosecutor-General's Office opened an investigation into the disappearance of the eight Maskhadov family members but reached no conclusions.
The anti-Kremlin Kavkaz Center website reported that Maskhadov’s relatives were held in a personal jail of Ramzan Kadyrov, deputy prime minister the pro-Moscow Chechen government. Ramzan is the son of late pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who was assassinated in Grozny in May 2004. Observers say Ramzan Kadyrov controls a force of at least 4,000 fighters, and that the force's legal status is unclear.
Memorial activist Baisaev says the released people believe they were held in one of Russia's largest military bases in Chechnya, possibly Khankala.
"According to them, they were kept at a Russian military base because they saw military personnel, heard them talk, saw their training exercises," Baisaev said. "So, these were not Kadyrov's people [who kept them in jail]. Most probably Kadyrov's people had seized them but then handed them over to the [Russian] military."
The press office of the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya told RFE/RL that it had no information on the case. The Interior Ministry refused to comment.
The official website of the Chechen government (http://chechnya.gov.ru) also had no reports on the subject.
The seven released people are possibly the only ones can shed more light on their mysterious kidnapping. But Baisaev says they are reluctant to speak to the media as well as to human rights activists.
The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which has repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for abductions and human rights violations in Chechnya, has welcomed the release of Maskhadov’s seven relatives. Aaron Rhodes, the organization’s executive director, says the seven as well as many other Chechen separatists’ relatives, should not have been abducted in the first place.
“It represents a kind of pattern that’s been happening all over Chechnya. There’ve been not only Maskhadov’s, but also other people’s relatives taken hostage and many of them are still in custody,” Rhodes said.
Baisaev learned from Maskhadov’s released relatives that there were more hostages in a place where the were held. "Apparently, there were other people kept there, who had also been kidnapped," he said. "There was a man [according to the released relatives of Maskhadov] who had been seized to make his relative surrender. So, he was another hostage."
Independent human rights activists have said the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership used Maskhadov’s relatives as hostage to pressure him to surrender. They say Maskhadov’s death made his relatives’ release possible.
Rhodes of Helsinki Federation also says taking relatives of anti-Kremlin Chechens hostage has become a state policy in Russia.
“After the Beslan tragedy, the prosecutor-general of the Russian Federation, Mr. [Vladimir] Ustinov publicly advocated a program of counter-hostage taking, which means basically kidnapping of relatives, which is a terrorist policy. This is a tactic used by terrorists and now you have a prosecutor-general advocating this. A number of human rights organizations including Memorial wrote to President [Vladimir] Putin at that point and they demanded explanation. But what’s worth noting is that [Ustinov] has just been reappointed to another term,” Rhodes said.
Russia has fought two wars against separatists in Chechnya over the past decade. The second was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin when he was prime minister in 1999. Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya in 1997 during its de facto independence between the two wars.