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Five Months Of Hell In A Chechen Prison: A Survivor Describes His Ordeal

Muslim's ordeal echoes countless stories of violence, torture, and abuse that have emerged from Chechnya under Kremlin-backed strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov. (illustrative image)
Muslim's ordeal echoes countless stories of violence, torture, and abuse that have emerged from Chechnya under Kremlin-backed strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov. (illustrative image)

It was a comment he left on an Instagram post that led to Muslim's descent into a hellish five months of torture, beatings, and darkness in a Chechen prison.

The comment was in response to a post in early 2017 about an acquaintance of Muslim, who was 25 years old at the time and who asked to be identified by a pseudonym in order to protect his family and friends. His friend, Muslim says, had been arrested in Chechnya, accused of being a terrorist and extremist.

Muslim felt compelled to speak up. He didn't know what would happen as a result. "My life was no different from the lives of many Russian citizens until I wrote a comment that forever changed me and my future," he said in an interview with RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities.

Muslim's ordeal echoes countless stories of violence, torture, and abuse that have emerged from Chechnya under Kremlin-backed strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled the southern Russian region since he was installed by President Vladimir Putin in 2007.

Kadyrov has built the war-ravaged region in the North Caucasus into his own personal fiefdom, cemented by Kremlin budget funds and revenues from local oil and gas reserves. He's built his own private army, a paramilitary group known informally as the "Kadyrovtsy." And he's overseen a system of impunity, relying on torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and collective punishment.

Under Kadyrov's watch, dissidents, opposition activists, or veterans of Chechnya's wars who have fled to Europe have also been targeted for assassination.

Now 30, Muslim is seeking asylum in a European country that he asked not be named.

RFE/RL reviewed some of the court documents that corroborated the main details of Muslim's imprisonment, as well as his social-media pages. RFE/RL was also able to verify many of the details from other people who were imprisoned with him and later released, including human rights activist Oyub Titiyev.

'I Was Beaten So Badly That I Couldn't Stand Up'

In 2017, Muslim says, he was living with his wife and children in a southern Russian city outside of Chechnya, and was employed at a government agency. He asked that the name of the city and the agency not be published.

When he spotted the Instagram post on a local news site about his friend, he felt compelled to comment.

"He wasn't a relative, but I knew him well enough and knew his views; they weren't radical," he said in a series of telephone interviews conducted between January 16 and 20. "I left a comment under the news on Instagram [saying] that I know this person and he is not a terrorist at all."

About a month later, he learned his friend had been shot and killed while in police custody. He was moved to write about it on his own social-media pages, including the Russian social-media giant VK. A few days later, he received threatening phone calls from people he said spoke with Chechen accents.

Not long after that, he was at his apartment when police raided his home, accusing him of soliciting bribes. They took him into custody and then gave him a choice of which charge he wanted to face, including attempted rape. He chose bribery.

He says he was given a suspended sentence, banned from holding certain positions for two years, hit with a heavy fine, and released.

A couple of months later, he received another phone call and was invited to a meeting in a public location. He was met by several men who told him they were sent by a relative of Kadyrov. "They asked me why I didn't mind my own business and why I wrote comments about things that don't concern me," he said.

They threatened to go to his apartment and question his wife and children unless he agreed to go to the local police precinct. He was kept there for several days, he says, a process that was repeated once more over the ensuing week.

On the evening of August 1, 2017, he was walking home when he noticed a car with a license plate bearing the initials of Kadyrov's first, middle, and last names. As he buzzed the building to enter, several men grabbed him, beat him, put him in a car and drove him several hours to a police precinct in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

He says he was held overnight and then taken to an office where he was interrogated. He spoke mainly in Russian, until one of the men called him a "shaitan."

He responded "no" in Chechen, surprising the men. And he immediately regretted it.

He was taken to a basement in the police building: several individual prison cells packed with people, between 30 and 50 people; bare concrete floor and walls; no toilet, no blankets -- nothing, he says.

"I was beaten so badly that I couldn't stand up," he said. "We slept on the bare floor, actually on top of one another. And yet we were beaten every morning."

"The ‘Kadyrovtsy' came down to us every morning, and instead of breakfast, we received a bit of electric shock torture. Zap. Zap. Zap. They attached wires to all parts of the body, twisted the wheel and said, 'Tell me,'" he said. "But they didn't tell me what I was supposed to say."

"Sometimes they gave us water so that we felt the shocks more, or they forced us to close our mouths so that the current wouldn't dissipate, or they poured water on our heads," he said.

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Muslim says sometimes other prisoners would simply make up stories in order to be left alone. And the "Kadyrovtsy" tortured people regardless of their age or sex, he says.

"The elderly they beat without an ounce of sympathy, contrary to Chechen tradition," he said. "Most often, they were detained as hostages in order to force their sons to surrender to the authorities. Once, in the middle of the night, an 80-year-old woman was brought in her nightgown. She was sick and scared. They detained her to lure her son out. She was not beaten, but she was treated rudely, pushed and thrown."

Once, he says, a boy and two girls who appeared to be around 15 were thrown into the basement. "The girls were wearing hijabs, their clothes were torn off and they were stripped down to their underwear, and the boy was stripped completely naked," Muslim said. "After they were brought to us, for some reason the light was turned on in the cell. I think on purpose. The girls cried a lot -- they were scared and ashamed."

"We dressed them as best we could, gave them what we had, and we had some spare" clothing, he said. "The same night, before morning prayers, the boy was taken to a neighboring cell where he was tortured with electric shocks. He yelled so loudly we couldn't hear each other."

When he and the other prisoners were beaten, he says, there was a ritual to it.

"You stood, usually against the wall, spreading your arms and legs, then a crowd of security officers rushed in and then beat you with whatever they had: hands, boots, batons," he said. "The most painful were the blows to the kidneys and liver. It's so intense that you can't even breathe."

Once, Muslim says, he was beaten so badly that he started vomiting and he couldn't stand up. But a group of outside inspectors intervened, apparently, he says, because two other prisoners at the same facility had died not long before due to torture, and he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was treated and released.

While in detention, he recalls the presence in another cell block of a well-known human rights activist, Oyub Tityev, whom he says the other prisoners looked up to, and, more important, the security guards did not beat or torture.

"Even while behind bars, Oyub counseled and helped many of us," Muslim said. "He was a hope and...a legend in this pretrial detention center. Many wanted to at least hear his voice."

Titiyev, who was released from the same prison in 2019, corroborated many of the details in Muslim's account. He declined to comment further.

His jailers tried repeatedly to force him to sign a confession, Muslim says; they also sought out former colleagues, to try to gather incriminating evidence. This way, he says, his family discovered that he had been imprisoned.

One day, he recalls, one of the jailers gave him a white T-shirt to put on, told him to wash my face, sit up straight and be "upbeat and cheerful" -- and they made a video call to his mother. "I was warned: 'Say something wrong, we will destroy you and your mother in the same room." The jailers asked his mother for 1 million rubles (currently about $15,000) to free him, Muslim says. She and relatives were only able to gather a quarter of that. The next day, he was forced to call his father to try and persuade him to come to the police precinct.

"I was intentionally rude to him, so that he wouldn't come," he said. "My father yelled at me, said that I was no longer his son, and hung up."

RFE/RL was unable to locate Muslim's parents, who are still in Chechnya.

Better Conditions

About six weeks after his initial detention, he says he was transferred to a better detention facility, with a bed and white walls. He was given tea and water, he could use a proper toilet, and was able to wash himself.

Two prison officials again visited him and demanded he sign a confession, or they would beat him so badly he would want to hang himself.

In January 2018, Muslim says, he was released on bail.

He says the authorities forced his wife to divorce him, a common practice in Chechnya, and he was barred from communicating with his children. He says he had a brief encounter with one of his sons, who expressed surprise when he saw his father: "Dad, what are you, a bandit?"

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Muslim says he left Russia in late 2022. He says he's speaking out now that he was able to leave Russia, and to raise awareness of prison conditions in Chechnya.

"Although now sometimes I want to return to that jail," he said. "No, not because of torture, of course, but because there was a kind of union between us ordinary people, which I'd never encountered anywhere else."

He also says that in retrospect, he has no regrets about leaving the original Instagram comment.

"I would probably leave it again and return to that pretrial detention center," he said. "Even if they killed me, I wouldn't want to be afraid and remain silent. I would want to live in such a way that later on, if they ever would remember me [after my death], people would say, 'He was such a good person and he was for the truth.'"

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Izabella Yevloyeva of RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities

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