A leading rights watchdog has accused authorities in Chechnya of systematically erecting a "tyranny" in that southern Russian republic and using "thugs" to intimidate potential rivals and the public ahead of an election next month in which Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is seeking a new term.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in its 56-page report -- titled Russia: Preelection Crackdown In Chechnya -- that "residents who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies are the primary victims of this [recent] crackdown."
It is a sweeping indictment of the 39-year-old Putin appointee's nine years in charge of one of Russia's most fractious republics following two destructive separatist wars fueled by separatism and Islamic extremism -- and chronicles mostly previously reported instances of torture, humiliation, and even the killing of detainees and other residents at the hands of Kadyrov-era officials.
There are no signs that Putin has lost faith in Kadyrov, whom he met at the Kremlin for a late-night working meeting on August 25 that included discussion of the economy, security, and an upcoming judo championship, according to a transcript provided by the Kremlin.
The September 18 election, for a seven-year term, marks the first time Kadyrov -- the son of a former insurgent who changed sides -- has faced a direct election to run the tiny Caucasus republic of around 1.3 million.
HRW warns against any expectation that democracy could prevail in the Chechen vote, which is part of regional elections across Russia.
"Chechen authorities are tyrannizing critics and anyone whose total loyalty to the local leadership they think is questionable," Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at HRW, said. "Under the circumstances, it's very difficult to see how the election in Chechnya can be free and fair."
HRW's report says the abuses under Kadyrov send an unequivocal message of intimidation that undermines the exercise of many civil and political rights, most notably freedom of expression.
The rights watchdog describes how Chechen authorities punish those who show discontent with the Chechen leadership and its policies. It also details what it describes as increasing threats, assaults, and the detention of journalists and human rights defenders.
The report says the Chechen authorities' crackdown appears designed to remind the Chechen public that Kadyrov, who was put in charge in 2007, remains in total control.
The most recent crackdown also seems aimed at containing the flow of any negative information from Chechnya that could undermine Kremlin support for Kadyrov, HRW says.
The report interviews 42 "victims" and documents the unlawful detention of such critics, including through abductions and enforced disappearances. It says detainees have been subjected to mistreatment and faced death threats and the threat of physical abuse of their family members.
In one case, HRW documented police officials who unlawfully detained, threatened, and ill-treated a woman and her three children in retaliation for her husband’s public remarks criticizing local authorities.
The woman and her teenage daughter were beaten by police officials in an effort to persuade her husband to retract his comments, the report alleges.
In another case, a man who had apparently made a flippant comment about Kadyrov in December 2015 went missing and his body was found “battered and broken” two weeks later. HRW says law-enforcement officials were behind the man’s disappearance and killing.
The report also documents five cases in which the authorities “publicly humiliated people, forcing them to apologize publicly to the Chechen leadership or to renounce their supposedly false claims.”
The abuse sends “an unequivocal message of intimidation to the public in Chechnya,” Lokshina said.
HRW says it believes there are many similar cases that “never come to light because the climate of fear in Chechnya is overwhelming, and local residents have been largely intimidated into silence.”
Chechen authorities have intensified their onslaught against journalists and the few human rights defenders who still work in the region, the report says, including when law-enforcement officials or their apparent proxies on three occasions in the past 2 1/2 years allegedly ransacked or burned the offices of the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (JMG). Activists working for the JMG faced physical attacks by “thugs apparently acting as Chechen authorities’ proxies,” the report says.
In addition to the interviews with victims of Chechen officials' alleged intimidation, HRW says its report is based on interviews with journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and other experts.
Kadyrov in early July announced his plan to run for a new term. But the Kremlin appeared to signal its approval back in March, when Putin issued a decree extending Kadyrov's second term, which had been due to expire on April 5.