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One Chechen's Cry From A Russian Jail -- 'Do These People Have Hearts?'

"For three days they held me in a cell -- they beat me, tortured me. When they weren't able to make me confess to any crimes, they said: 'Just confess to anything. It doesn't matter to us...'" (file photo)
"For three days they held me in a cell -- they beat me, tortured me. When they weren't able to make me confess to any crimes, they said: 'Just confess to anything. It doesn't matter to us...'" (file photo)
One day in early 2004, a Chechen man was stopped outside the gate of his home in the western part of the republic. The security forces took him away and thus began his nightmarish journey through the justice system of Russia's restive, war-torn North Caucasus.

Imran -- who asked that his full name not be used out of fear of reprisals from the Russian authorities -- is now serving an 18-year sentence on a collage of terrorism-related charges in a prison in Russia's far-northern Arkhangelsk region.

Speaking by telephone exclusively to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Imran claimed he had a good idea what was coming when the security forces took him away that day because they'd already come for him before.

"The first time they picked me up during a sweep in 2003, in September, at six in the morning," he said. "They were Russian troops. For three days they held me in a cell -- they beat me, tortured me. When they weren't able to make me confess to any crimes, they said: 'Just confess to anything. It doesn't matter to us -- it only matters that you confess.'"

According to Imran, he was released after those three days, but the authorities held on to his passport. The second time was far worse than the first:

"For 10 days they beat me," he said. "They tortured me until I lost consciousness. If my relatives hadn't found out where I was being held, they would have simply killed me. Then they handed me over to prosecutors. When they did that, I saw that my passport was in the hand of the investigator. They had prepared the case against me in advance."

Imran admits he fought in the first Chechen independence war in the early 1990s, but says he had lived peacefully since that uprising ended in 1996. He says that he wanted to leave the war-ravaged republic but that he had to remain to take care of his elderly mother.

'Sufficient Proof Of Torture'

Imran's case has been taken up by local legal-rights activists with the Russian Justice Initiative (RJI), who have filed a complaint on his behalf with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Anastasia Kushleiko, RJI's legal director, confirmed the details of Imran's case. She believes the ECHR should call into question the entire prosecution.

"In Imran's case, his entire sentence is ultimately based on confessions that were obtained as a result of the torture he underwent, repeatedly, beginning right after he was detained and continuing during the investigation," she said. "And there is sufficient proof of this -- actually, I'd say more than sufficient, very strong evidence that he was tortured."

Activists claim that the Chechen and Russian authorities have carried out a policy of removing as many men from Chechnya as possible through questionable legal processes.

The office of Chechnya's human rights ombudsman says 20,000 Chechens have been sent to serve prison terms in other parts of Russia for "security reasons," while independent activists say that figure is more like 30,000.

The case against Imran was also based largely on the testimony of a boy who was 16 at the time.

Imran says when the boy was called to testify at his trial, he recanted his evidence, saying he'd been tortured and only agreed to the statement to save his own life. That witness was then sentenced to seven years in prison as Imran's co-conspirator.

Evidence Discrepancy

Among the charges against Imran and the boy was that they carried out a bombing in May 2003. However, the charge sheet also said that Imran illegally acquired the explosives for that attack in June 2003 -- one month after the blast. In Imran's words, when his lawyer asked the judge about this discrepancy, the judge was scornful.

"The judge answered my lawyer, laughing in his face: 'If we let him go, then we'll have to let the boy go too. We'd have to admit our mistakes, and we don't want to admit them,'" Imran said.

Repeated requests to the office of Chechnya's human rights ombudsman to comment on this case went unanswered.

Imran's 18-year sentence on a hodge-podge of charges based on questionable evidence stands in stark contrast to the few cases of Russian officers prosecuted for crimes committed in the North Caucasus.

Russian Army Colonel Yury Budanov, for instance, was sentenced in 2003 to 10 years in prison for raping and murdering a teenage Chechen women in 2000.

Budanov was granted early release in 2009 -- and was murdered on a Moscow street in 2011. A monument has been erected in his honor at the site.

Now all Imran's hopes for justice lie in Strasbourg. But lawyer Kushleiko laments that the wheels of justice at the European Court of Human Rights turn achingly slowly.
Anastasia Kushleiko, legal director of the RJI
Anastasia Kushleiko, legal director of the RJI

"The problem with the European Court of Human Rights is that all cases of this type take a very long time to be processed," she said. "For example, Imran's complaint was filed in 2007 and it has not yet been communicated. That means the court has not yet begun considering it and hasn't issued an inquiry to the [Russian] government that we could discuss. The complaint remains with the court. We know that it has been received, but unfortunately such cases take a very long time."

In the meantime, Imran waits in his far-northern prison. He says there are about 20 Chechen prisoners serving time with him and that they are poorly treated compared to Russian prisoners. He claims that their sentences are longer and that they regularly spend time in solitary confinement for little or no reason.

No Hope Of Parole

Imran says his relatives are technically allowed to visit him once a year, but that he doesn't encourage them to make the trip because prison officials generally find excuses to cancel or postpone the visit.

Although Imran believes he is technically eligible to apply for parole after serving 12 years, he has no hope it would be granted.

"With the [baseless] violations that I have and which all the Chechens here have, we will never in our lives see any parole," he says. "No matter how hard I tried to be a model prisoner, they won't let me get by without violations. They just make them up -- it is obvious what they are doing.

"If you don't break any rules, they just pin something on you. Not just once, but over and over. Will I ever get parole? There is not a single Chechen here without violations -- we all have reports, we have all been in solitary."

Imran has a lot of time to think about what has happened to him since the day more than eight years ago when the soldiers came to his house. He has also though about the thousands of young Chechens who have stories just like his.

"They sent us away to Russian prisons for 15, 20 years for nothing," he said. "Who is going to pay attention to this? Why doesn't anyone do anything? And I wonder -- do these people have hearts? Do they have any honor?

"Could it be that their mothers gave birth to them without hearts? I think about this a lot. Can such injustice really exist -- can't something be done about it? We are waiting for a miracle. We are hoping. But…"

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report