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Small Corners Of Hell


Slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote articles critical of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership
Slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote articles critical of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership
* Correction appended

Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in Moscow in October 2006 primarily for her articles criticizing Russian policy in Chechnya, in particular the vindictiveness, intimidation, corruption and arbitrary brutality that are the hallmarks of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership.

The appalling suffering that she witnessed in Chechnya is chronicled in her books "A Dirty War" (1999) and "A Small Corner Of Hell" (2003). But in terms of man's inhumanity to man, nothing Politkovskaya described in those volumes can compare with a detailed account, which can't be verified by RFE/RL, posted last week to the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency website, of torture in Chechnya's secret prisons.

"Targimho," the author of that post, says he compiled it on the basis of first-hand accounts by prisoners who survived and were released. According to the account, those survivors identify three locations in Chechnya where suspects were incarcerated, beaten, tortured, and executed, or fed alive to dogs. In addition to the "classics" -- stringing prisoners up by their wrists until their shoulders dislocate, the use of electric shocks -- they described other methods of torture, including dripping molten tar on to a prisoner's head and the so-called "womb": a pit one-meter deep in which prisoners are forced to squat, and into which liquid concrete is poured until it reaches their necks. The concrete expands as it sets, breaking every bone in their bodies.

One of the locations identified is a former school in Grozny for the deaf that served as a secret prison from 2000 to early 2006. The Chechen website described in late May 2006 how human rights activists who inspected the abandoned building days earlier found inscriptions in blood on the walls and photographs of some of the 400 teenage girls and boys who had been imprisoned there. Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev immediately rejected that report as untrue.

The most horrendous prison, Targimho writes, is still in use, but no prisoner has ever left there alive. According to a comment on Targimho's post, it is located between Shali and Novye Atagi on the southern outskirts of Grozny and is visible on Google Earth. Targimho cites a Chechen who worked there as describing how prisoners -- both men and women, most of them young -- are kept stark naked under the open sky in cages one cubic meter in size in which they can neither sit nor lie, but can only curl up in a fetal position. According to Targimho, they invariably become insane.

In early 2010, the UN Human Rights Council unveiled a report prepared by a special Working Group on the recourse to torture at secret prisons in the context of the war on terrorism. That report cited the findings of the Committee on the Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe following visits to the North Caucasus in May and September 2006, which noted "a considerable number" of allegations by persons that they were detained at various locations, including Tsentoroi (Kadyrov's home village); the Vega base near Gudermes, east of Grozny; and Shali and Urus-Martan, which lies some 15-20 kilometers to the west.

The CoE Committee does not mention the filtration camp near the base at Khottuni, some 20 kilometers south of Shali, of the 45th Airborne and 119th Parachute Divisions. Politkovskaya visited that base in February 2001 to investigate multiple reports that suspects were being held there in 20-meter deep pits. She was herself held there for three days in an underground concrete bunker before being released.

Umar Israilov, the former Kadyrov bodyguard shot dead on the street in a Vienna suburb in January 2009, told "The New York Times" shortly before he was killed that he witnessed the torture of at least 20 detainees at Tsentoroi over a period of 10 months.

Russian human rights groups, including Memorial, continue to campaign fearlessly for a formal investigation into reports of the existence of such places of detention in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

By contrast, some Western human rights watchdogs omit for whatever reason to highlight the issue of Chechnya's secret prisons and the practices engaged in there. A PACE resolution on the North Caucasus adopted last summer that pulled no punches in criticizing other human rights abuses in Chechnya condemned unresolved disappearances and called for an investigation into allegations of torture, but failed to mention secret prisons. They are not mentioned either in the most recent global survey of human rights abuses released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch.

The memorial unveiled in Grozny in 1992 by then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Djokhar Dudayev to those who perished during the 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia on Stalin's orders bears the inscription: "We shan't weep. We shan't flinch. We shan't forget," which is a variation on the Chechen folk saying "we shan't forgive, we shan't forget." In that spirit, Targimho explained that he went public with his revelations because "I do not want us to forget these deeds."

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the author of the post on

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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