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Relatives Fear Missing Chechen Man Has Joined Thousands Of 'Disappeared'

Ramzan Shaikhayev has not been seen by his family on over a month. (file photo)

Ramzan Shaikhayev had recently returned home to Chechnya after years living in Moscow when he got a mysterious phone call on the evening of September 9.

The unidentified caller, relatives said, instructed Shaikhayev to go outside his home in Argun for what they assumed was to be a "meeting," likely with law enforcement officials. Video footage later emerged, according to a leading Russian human rights group, appearing to show him getting into one car and then another, which eventually drove off with him inside.

Since that evening, no one has seen or heard from the 47-year-old Shaikhayev.

The Memorial Human Rights Center has said there are grounds to suspect Shaikhayev was abducted by Chechen security services.

Shaikhayev has had his share of run-ins with the law. He was picked up by police shortly after arriving back in Chechnya, and his car and other possessions were confiscated, Memorial said. In 2012 in Moscow, he was suspected of planning a robbery and of belonging to banned Islamic extremist group Takfir wal-Hijra -- known in Russia as At-Takfir Val-Hijra -- but he denied the charges and they were subsequently dropped amid accusations that a fellow defendant in the case had been tortured.

Disappearances like Shaikhayev's are all too common in Chechnya, according to human rights activists who say many cases go unreported, making it hard to gauge the scale of the problem.

"Those cases are typical in Chechnya," said Memorial board chairman Oleg Orlov. "Just look, a month has passed since [Shaikhayev] disappeared and we are getting information and speaking about it only now. And that's where the problem lies. In the majority of such cases, information comes to light far too late."

Climate Of Fear

"People in the Chechen Republic don't want to give statements" to the authorities, he said -- part of what Memorial and other groups have described as a climate of fear held in place by Kremlin-backed regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Families of those who vanish -- and who are usually assumed to have been detained by Chechen security forces – are frightened that coming forward will only make things worse for their loved ones, Orlov added.

Kadyrov, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007 and appears to have retained his favor, has been widely accused of human rights abuses -- including murder, torture, and orchestrating disappearances -- for many years. Putin and his government have largely ignored or shrugged off the criticism.

Disappearances became widespread during Russia's two military campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, experts say. And more recently, in 2017, human rights organizations reported an increase in the number of Chechens detained or abducted by security personnel.

Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova (1958-2009)
Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova (1958-2009)

Memorial, which monitors such cases, has faced its own persecution from Chechen authorities. The head of its Grozny office, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted and murdered in 2009.

Last year, her successor, Oyub Titiyev, was arrested on charges that he and his supporters said were false and politically motivated. In March 2019, a court convicted Titiyev of illegal drug possession and sentenced him to four years in a penal institution whose inmates must work.

He was freed on June 21 after a court ordered his early release on parole.

In Police Crosshairs

Shortly after returning to Chechnya in July, Shaikhayev and his wife were detained by police, according to his brother.

"They picked him up then because he stood out with his appearance: [he has a] long beard, and he doesn't dress like others do," Siradzhi Shaikayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service earlier this week.

His wife was released a few days later, but Shaikhayev was held much longer. His release, according to his brother, was timed to coincide with the August 23 opening of what was billed as "Europe's biggest mosque" in Shali, a town of 54,000 just outside Grozny.

"They said once the large mosque in Shali is open they would release him," Siradzhi Shaikhayev said. "What they told me was that he was detained for a check on his religious beliefs. Before he was released, they told us that everything is okay, that he doesn't represent a danger to society. And they really let him go."

According to Memorial, while he was detained, police confiscated a car, jewelry, money, and other valuables from Shaikhayev.

The Call

Shaikhayev was free just over two weeks before he got the call on his mobile phone on September 9, requesting he come outside his home in Argun, 16 kilometers east of Grozny. According to Memorial, there is video footage showing Shaikhayev entering a vehicle before getting out a few minutes later. That car is seen driving away in the video footage before a "black Ford" drives up. Shaikhayev appears to get into this vehicle, which then drives away.

Unlike many families in similar situations, Shaikhayev's family spoke up.

"We drove around Grozny, checked at district police stations, showed pictures of him, and gave out his passport information," Siradzhi Shaikhayev recounted. "They told us there was no one like that [being held]. We didn't get anywhere."

Despite the family outcry, Kheda Saratova, a member of Chechnya's official human rights council, told RFE/RL that she hadn't heard about the case, saying Shaikhayev's family had not contacted her.

Tracking such disappearances is difficult, Orlov explained, because families of victims either wait until it's too late to help -- often only after the detained individual confesses under duress and a criminal case is opened.

"There's a third scenario when the individual is freed for whatever reasons," Orlov added. "In those cases, it's clear the relatives don't want to file a complaint. And figuring out why they were freed -- it can be hard to say. Maybe ransom or a bribe was paid, and so on."

'Systemic Terror'

Orlov says a combination of "intimidation and systemic fear" in Chechnya frustrates rights activists' efforts to help families.

"This concrete example shows that, yes, people do disappear, but it's not possible to take them up as human rights cases…. Because of the intimidation and the systemic terror that exists in Chechnya, it is difficult to carry out such work," he explained.

In 2016-17, Russian rights organizations registered an alarming increase in the number of Chechens -- both men and women -- allegedly detained or abducted by security personnel, many of whom subsequently disappeared without a trace.

In January 2016, Memorial reported that at least 24 people had been apprehended during the previous three months, one of whom was found dead.

Citing his oversight of "an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings," the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Kadyrov on December 20, 2017, within the framework of the so-called Magnitsky Act of 2012, which provides for sanctions against Russians implicated in serious human rights abuses.

Toxic Legacy

Forced disappearances are part of the toxic legacy of Russia's two military campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s. In a briefing paper published in March 2005, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated the number of such disappearances between late 1999 and early 2005 at between 3,000 and 5,000.

HRW further argued that the scale of such disappearances in Chechnya at that time was so widespread or systematic as to meet the definition of a "crime against humanity" enshrined in the UN Declaration On The Protection Of Persons From Forced Disappearances.

As for the family of Ramzan Shaikhayev, they anxiously await news of his fate.

"We'd be a lot more at ease if we knew where he is now," said Siradzhi Shaikhayev, rejecting any notion his brother represents a threat.

"He is a very pious person," Siradzhi said. "He's just not interested in everyday, material things."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Yekaterina Filippovich, a correspondent with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.