PRAGUE, May 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some 50 men wearing Russian military uniforms took the man from his home in Chechnya's Shali Raion in the morning. They blindfolded and beat him, gave him electric shocks, and tossed him in a pit.
"The holes were 8 to 10 meters deep with rope ladders," the victim said. "Every 10 or 15 minutes they pulled me out to interrogate and torture me. When they put me in the hole the first time, I was blindfolded. They told me if I took off the blindfold and opened my eyes they would throw in a grenade. The last time I was put in the hole without the blindfold and saw the names of people -- men and women -- who had been there before."
It was a terrifying experience. And, according to a report by the Vienna-based Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), it is not an uncommon occurrence in Chechnya.
According to the IHF report, extrajudicial detentions, interrogations, torture, and even executions have become the norm as Russian federal forces and their Chechen allies try to gain control of the rebel region.
Earth pits, metal storage containers, and underground pedestrian street crossings have all been put to use as part of an ever-expanding makeshift, secret gulag used to extract intelligence and systematically intimidate a civilian population already weary from Russia's two wars in the republic.
The Shali man said his captors attempted to gain information about Chechen fighters.
"They asked me where the Chechen rebel bases were, who is selling narcotics, and where the weapons were being stored," he said. "I told them that I didn't know this information and they told me they would help me remember. During one of the interrogations, they asked if I could at least name people who fired guns in the air at weddings."
The man was then subjected to electric shocks, which continued until he lost consciousness. In the evening, the man was set free, left on the side of the road with his hands bound behind his back, a belt tightened around his neck, and a backpack wrapped over his head like a makeshift hood.
Shortly after the second Chechen war began in 1999, Russian forces began constructing a secret network of prisons in the province, most of them in the form of earth pits like the one in which the victim from Shali ended up.
But over the years, human rights activists such as IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes say the network has expanded and become more diverse and sophisticated.
"There is evidence that more and more illegal prisons have been functioning," Rhodes said. "And as the report shows, the facilities take a number of different kinds of forms. There's quite a variety of types of illegal prisons used in Chechnya."
And as Russia prepares to take over as Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe this week, there is mounting pressure for an investigation into Moscow's secret Chechen prisons.
Investigation In Order
The IHF on May 15 asked Swiss Senator Dick Marty, who is investigating allegations of secret CIA prisons for the Council of Europe, to expand his probe to include Russian facilities in Chechnya.
Rhodes says the request is meant to call attention to the issue at a critical moment in Russia's Council of Europe membership.
”We're hoping for more exposure of these problems," Rhodes said. "And we're hoping that in the context of the Council of Europe political process that other members of the Council of Europe would express their concern and find ways to help the Russian Federation solve some of these problems in a positive way. The report isn't meant simply to pose a criticism, it's meant to be a vehicle for addressing problems that are of concern to us all."
Russia's Changing Face
THE COMING MUSLIM MAJORITY: On February 28, Russia expert PAUL GOBLE, vice dean of social sciences and humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia, gave a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Goble said ethographers predict Russia will have a Muslim majority "within our lifetime." Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent, Goble said, rising to some 25 million self-declared Muslims. He said 2.5 million to 3.5 million Muslims now live in Moscow, gving Moscow the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe. Russia today has more than 8,000 mosques, up from just 300 in 1991. By 2010, experts predict, some 40 percent of Russian military conscripts will be Muslims.
Goble noted that these changes have been accompanied by a "rising tide" of anti-Muslim prejudice. Public-opinion surveys reveal that up to "70 percent of ethnic Russians" express sympathy with xenophobic slogans. Goble warned that heavy-handed state efforts to "contain Islam" could backfire and cause groups to move underground, "radicalizing people who are not yet radicalized."
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia's North Caucasus, click here.