The Never-Ending War

Unique Testimonies From Inside Russia's Prison System

Amina Umarova

Hundreds of Chechens languish in Russia's vast network of prisons, although full-scale fighting ended in Chechnya more than 15 years ago. Most were jailed on charges -- often described by rights activists as trumped up -- of fighting for the insurgency in the two devastating wars between Russian forces and Chechen separatists. Many have endured horrendous torture.


Amid general indifference and the iron-fisted rule of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the former separatist fighter appointed by Moscow to keep a lid on the volatile North Caucasus republic, their chances of walking free are vanishingly small. In a seven-month investigation, RFE/RL's Amina Umarova spoke to a Chechen rebel held in northern Russia for over a decade, a woman battling for her brother's release, and a sympathetic prison guard -- all trapped in a horrific spiral of impunity and violence.

Part One

The Sister

Only her clear blue eyes enable you to recognize the once charming and energetic Elima in this battered woman who has lost interest in life. It is hard to believe she is only 42 years old. Of these years, exactly one third, fourteen years, have been devoted to trying to rescue her only brother, Adam, taken from their home during a security sweep in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. She has recently been diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumor and the doctors predict she does not have much longer to live.

"I have no tears left to weep and my heart no longer aches," Elima, whose name has been changed for this article, tells me as we walk in a small town near Prague. I imagined she would continue to speak only in brief phrases like that, but I was wrong. We were able to talk at length.

The start of the second Chechen war was brutal. Apartment blocks, whole neighborhoods, districts and villages were surrounded, everyone was detained indiscriminately. Violence and the practice of ransoming people beaten half to death or selling dead bodies back to families were commonplace. The Russian military even took money for "information" about missing people that they knew was false, and then drove away with obscenities relatives whose sons, husbands, and brothers had been spirited off to unknown destinations.

Adam was seized from his home in the Oktyabr district of Grozny. Late on April 16, 2000, UAZ jeeps and an armored personnel carrier stopped at his gate. Soldiers in masks burst into the house and immediately started beating the young man.

August 1996 - Devastated Peace Street in the center of the Chechen capital Grozny. Igor Mikhalev/RIA Novosti

The soldiers took particular exception to the fact that Adam was reading Boccaccio's Decameron. One of them flung it to the floor and, swearing coarsely, began stamping on it. Another unzipped is fly in front of everyone and urinated on it. Adam's father was outraged: "How dare you behave in that manner?" Blows from rifle butts left him unconscious. No attention was paid to Adam's mother, who was crawling on the floor by the wall after suffering her first heart attack.

On the facade, on a window frame behind sandbags, someone had daubed in white paint: "We don't give a damn about your grief."

At dawn, a neighbor of Elima's parents came rushing to tell her what happened and said that her parents were in a very bad state. The neighbor advised Elima to take a lot of money to rescue her brother from "these Khanty-Mansiysk monsters," a reference to security forces from that region of Russia. "If you don’t do it today, you'll find no trace of him later," she said as she ran away.

"I was a good seamstress and we had money," Elima continues. The operational group of the Russian Federation's Interior Ministry in the Oktyabr district occupied a three-story building that previously housed a boarding school for deaf and dumb children. When she and her husband reached the main entrance, they found other Chechens already there whose sons and brothers had been taken during the night. On the facade, on a window frame behind sandbags, someone had daubed in white paint: "We don't give a damn about your grief." The walls were covered with the names of towns and members of the riot police who had come from those towns to the Chechen Republic. One piece of graffiti in particular stuck in her memory: "We will help you die. Signed: the Riot Police and Internal Affairs Directorate of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Territory.

"The system is constructed so that you are nobody and some unwashed lout with a rifle holds your life in his hands. I learned later that the whole financial side was very well organized. You give them money and they stop saying, "Haven't seen him, never detained him." The money seemed to be binding us in an agreement of some sort. They never refused it."

That day Elima had $2,000 taken off her, but her brother was not released. They told her to come back for him the following morning, but the next day they demanded a further $1,500. After waiting until late into the night, Elima again left without her brother. The next day she found that the contract police officer who had taken the money and promised to "put in a word" had returned to Khanty-Mansiysk. The member of the operational group who imparted this news demanded $5,000. "It is going to be more difficult now. They've opened a legal case so there will be a trial. But don't you worry, your brother is alive," he said.

The $5,000 she had borrowed and handed over to that official did not enable Elima to even see her brother. The riot police very willingly accepted parcels of food and clothing, but she later learned that they kept them for themselves. She cannot remember now who advised her to engage a lawyer or how much she paid him, but she does remember that a lot of money changed hands. Every penny she possessed at the time of Adam's arrest she spent trying to save him. Her parents both died before the "trial." Chechens say in such circumstances that someone has been burned up by grief. Elima sold the family home and Adam's car for next to nothing. "I had no more money," she says. "My hands would not obey me. I couldn't sew."

The day of the court hearing arrived. "They led into the courtroom something twisted and disheveled which, oddly placing its feet and supported by the guards, shambled towards the cage for the accused. When I realized this creature being dragged with splayed legs was my brother, my brain and heart exploded. I seemed to be dreaming some hideous nightmare peopled with monsters and thought I must surely be about to wake up. When I cried out, the guards at the door first stiffened, then trained their rifles on me. The lawyer took money but did not once visit my brother! And they had been torturing him."

As they beat him they said: "You will never have children now! We are taking you out of the breeding pool!"

"The charges had been hastily thrown together and were manifestly absurd. It was the judge's duty to acquit Adam and release him there and then in the courtroom, but he did not dare. He read out the sentence in a monotone: 18 years in a high-security penal colony for terrorists and murderers. Adam never killed anyone! Through my customers, I heard that the Russian man my brother was accused of having killed had been a drunk all his life and died of natural causes. He was buried by good people and I found them. I found the place that man was buried and photographed it. The witnesses were insistent and swore he had died of natural causes. I took what I managed to find out piece by piece to the lawyer, but suddenly strange things began to happen. One by one the witnesses started denying everything they had told me. I could see they were scared to death. The lawyer 'lost' my photographs, the witnesses' particulars, and my notes of what they had said."

As she tells me about her brother's torture, Elima clenches her fingers convulsively.

"Before his arrest, my brother was 1.9 meters tall. He was a handsome young man, 20 years old, with a thick mop of hair. They crushed his innards. They broke his fingers. Adam refused to sign a blank form. They hung him from a horizontal bar with his hands and feet tied, which dislocates the joints. While he was hanging there they put a plastic bag over his head and tied it at his neck with string. When he was suffocating and lost consciousness they took him down. When he was jerking about because of the suffocation he caused himself unimaginable pain. They put him facing the wall with his hands outstretched and forced him to stand with his legs wide apart. Then they beat him in the crotch and shouted that he would never have children. They inserted a tube in his anus, pushed in some barbed wire and removed the tube. The barbed wire was left in the rectum. The others came running to watch the barbed wire being yanked out with his intestines turned inside out. They called it “the rose.” They forced his mouth open and burned the inside with a soldering iron so he could neither eat nor drink. The riot police hung a cross made out of rails in the boarding school gym. They tied the detainees to it and tortured them with electric shocks. Those who survived were dragged back to the cell and thrown on the cold floor by the door. The ones who broke down quickly, and signed incriminating statements against themselves and acknowledging receipt of their sentences, they carried on torturing for fun. The riot police would get drunk, and then amuse themselves."

Adam was also unlucky in being tall. He was beaten for being Chechen and for being tall. As they beat him they said: "You will never have children now! We are taking you out of the breeding pool!"

While Elima was in desperation, a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who had been deployed to Chechnya and who introduced himself as Sergei Bobrov came to their house for "chats" and to ask when she would be putting on the explosive belt of a suicide bomber. When she looked baffled, he said this is what he would do if he were her, to take revenge on those riot police who were "completely out of order."

"When I told Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow about Adam, she cried. I said all this into her dictaphone at the Novaya Gazeta offices. She was going to write a long article about Adam and other Chechen prisoners and give speeches in Europe. Our guys wrote to her from prison a lot. After she was murdered, the authorities found and threatened me. There was everything on the tape about our family, how Adam was seized, the torture, the trial, whom I had bribed to ease Adam's suffering and how. First I was 'shaken down' by the Federals and then they brought in Kadyrov's lot."

Elima travelled over almost the whole of Russia -- more precisely, to cities which have prisons. She had no money and would take any job, from hospital orderly to cleaner at a railway station. The atmosphere was heavy with anti-Chechen hysteria and she was forced to conceal the fact that she was Chechen. Fortunately, nobody ever wanted to see her identity documents or register her employment, so as not to have to make pension and social security contributions.

"You are nobody and some unwashed lout with a rifle holds your life in his hands."

Elima's minimal earnings were spent on food and medicines, not only for Adam but also for his cellmates. Later she had the added expense of paying for a mobile phone, which the prison staff would regularly confiscate and then sell back to the prisoners.

She would sleep wherever she could. If she was lucky, in an empty ward, but most of the time in closets for dirty hospital linen. Elima managed to visit Adam for the first time more than a year after he had been sent away.

"I took Adam's hands, put them to my cheeks, and closed my eyes. He was ashamed of his broken fingers but joked that they would heal before his wedding. I was putting on a brave face, assuring him everything was fine with me. We reminisced about our parents, our childhood, going swimming in the river, gathering berries in the forest. We even talked about Muska the cat and our dog, Tarzan.

Knowing we were being eavesdropped on and spied on, I asked him to rest his head on my shoulder and pretend to fall asleep. It was in that position, with the lights off, that he told me about the atrocities and torture. I stroked his head and felt how completely covered it was with sores and bumps. What had they done to my brother? Curse the lot of them!"

Adam will not give in, and so he is constantly in punishment cells. He is fighting not only for himself but for guys who are in even worse condition than he is. He has studied the Penal Code and the Constitution of the Russian Federation and resists them intelligently. He gets regular visits from FSB officers who tell him straight out that he is never going to be released.

Adam told Elima that Chechen prisoners are forced to admit even to crimes committed after their arrest. "They don't care in the slightest about appearances, that things simply don't add up!" Elima exclaims.

"Why are our young people becoming radicalized?" she asks rhetorically. "The rest of the Chechen population is doomed to live a wretched life. Some flee secretly to Europe, others to Syria, which is completely alien to them."

In the course of many years, Elima has visited hundreds of young Chechens she did not know but who have no family left. She brings them food and news. At her request, I am not mentioning the city or number of the prison where Adam is detained. As she says, there is not a single prison in Russia that does not hold Chechens accused of terrorism, banditry, and illegal weapons possession.

Part Two

The Soldier

He called in the dead of night and said: "I am phoning from hell." Movsar, 47, fought in the First Chechen War. Now he is in prison in Arkhangelsk province, sentenced to 24 years of strict-regime forced labor for terrorism and sedition against the state system and subverting the integrity of the Russian Federation. The verdict coincides word-for-word with those handed down to thousands of other Chechens captured during security sweeps in the first years of the Second War.

He does not regret having resisted but cannot forgive himself for the fact that, instead of actively involving himself in the republic's politics after the Khasavyurt Accord (the 1996 agreement that marked the end of the First Chechen War) , he set about rebuilding his destroyed family house. "My first priority was to make the site of the house secure," he says.

"I died long ago, and I am not the person I used to be. If there is a hell on earth, I am in it."

Movsar drove in his father's old car to defend Grozny [against federal forces] in mid-December 1994, wearing a sheepskin coat and knitted cap. On the way he stopped at a cafe and bought a basinful of Chechen curd-cheese buns and some thermos flasks of tea for the defenders of the capital. He picked up his uniform and assault rifle the following day in the streets of Grozny. The fighters in [separatist Chechen leader Dzhokhar] Dudayev's army did not want to put the lives of Chechen civilians at risk, and tasked them only with assisting the wounded and distributing water and food. When bombing and shelling drove the Chechen resistance out of Grozny, Movsar makes no secret of the fact that he joined them. "I defended my country against occupying troops. The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, openly invited everyone to 'take as much sovereignty as you can eat!' After centuries of humiliation, the Chechens decided to secede. We did not fire a single shot on the territory of Russia. They came to us with arms and we met them with arms. If they had come with music, we would have taken out our musical instruments. I am still clear that I was fighting against Russian state terrorism," Movsar says.

Masked soldiers came for him early in the dank morning of February 26, 2000. He was dragged, half asleep, out of bed, hauled outside, and thrown face down in a puddle of slush. A furiously barking dog was shot dead by a soldier who was casually smoking while holding down Movsar's head with a heavy boot. "You Chechen cur, that'll teach you to keep you jaws shut," the soldier snarled before stubbing out his cigarette on Movsar's head. Movsar's hair never grew back where he was burned.

Meanwhile, soldiers were ransacking the house in search of weapons. They found nothing. Completely openly, they brought a bag of firearms from their APC, emptied it out, and listed the contents as belonging to Movsar. To the shouts of his mother and wife and the wails of his two small children, they threw him into a truck on top of cold, naked bodies bound hand and foot, and drove away with him. Along with Movsar, they took a large carpet from the sitting room, cast-iron frying pans, a cooking pot, and jars of pickled cucumbers from the cellar. They drove for a long time, stopped for a long time, and finally brought him to a military base. Two contract soldiers climbed in, pulled back the tarpaulin, and started playing a grim game of "alive - not alive." They booted the bodies in the flank, just below the ribs. It was clearly not the first time they had done this. If the body groaned, it was alive. If it stayed silent, they rolled it over to the edge and threw it off the truck."

January 2000 - Russian special police officers order arrested Chechen gunmen to stand with their faces to the wall. TASS
February 2000 - Russian soldiers inspect Chechen men standing along a wall in the prison of the Chechen village of Chernokozovo. EPA / ALEXANDER NEMENOV

Only two of them were still alive: Movsar and a young man, who had a black eye and the lower half of whose face was shattered. "The boy tried to open his lips, which were stuck together, and say something but they smashed a rifle butt into my head and I lost consciousness. I didn't see him again. Most likely, he died. I came to in a cage where I could neither sit nor stretch. I spent almost three weeks there. Your chin was pressed down on your chest and your bent knees were at ear level. You were allowed to go to the toilet once a day. It was so cold I just wanted to die. There were a great many cages and people in them. Every half hour one of the guards would come round and bang heavily on the top of them. There was no way you could doze or fall asleep. You were taken from these cages for interrogation, where they tortured you with electric shocks.

The guard would come, open the cage, and you were supposed to crawl out quickly, straighten up, and run. Needless to say, I couldn't straighten up, let alone run. They beat you brutally. If you stumbled and fell, they set the dogs on you. The question they always asked at interrogations was, "Where is Maskhadov?" Even if I had known I would not have said. They demanded the names of men who were or had been fighting. They pulled your skin and nails off with pincers. They suspended you by the feet, put a plastic bag over your head and smoked into it. They burned your heels with a soldering iron. Beating your kidneys with bottles of water was the least of it. They would take you outside naked, hose you over with water, and force you to stand there. They would take you to be hanged. When you stopped twitching they took you down. Again and again. If you lost consciousness, they gave you injections.

All that remained of the bodies after they had been blown up was dust, nails, and teeth. "No body -- no crime."

People died in the cages by the dozen. Every day the bodies were pulled out by other prisoners. The hands and feet of the dead were broken and mangled, ears cut off, jaws broken. The bodies were freakishly black from the beatings and torture. We were ordered to stack them in piles and put explosives among them. All that remained of the bodies after they had been blown up was dust, nails, and teeth. "No body -- no crime."

In late March, we were all let out of the cages and taken to a field. The soldiers were particularly vicious. They lined all of us up in a long row, half-naked, stinking, and told us to walk forward. We did not know we were on the edge of a minefield. We thought they were going to shoot us in the back. One prisoner suddenly ran off like a madman, and the soldiers were too scared to go after him into the field. We were all forced to walk after him and the explosions began immediately. Bodies were flying up in the air, torn apart. We were instantly covered in other people's blood and guts and pieces of scorched skin. The "madman" kept running as if he were in a trance. Perhaps at that moment I was hallucinating, but I saw the rays of the sun had come out from the clouds and were shining only on him. I prayed and kept walking and suddenly I was thrown up too. But it was another Chechen next to me who had been blown up. I was just stunned and wounded by shrapnel.

When everybody had crossed the field, they sent a second line of Chechen prisoners to make sure there were no mines left and to collect the remains of what had been human bodies. They were forced to dig a trench and bury everything in a single heap. I prayed I might die there, but for some purpose I survived. They did not put me back in the cage. My wounds began to fester and I washed them with the water they brought me to drink. Suddenly, about a week later, I was sent to Chernokozovo. I was beaten some more there then moved to Pyatigorsk. Then, a court appearance and [a prison sentence of] 24 years."

Movsar has already served thirteen and a half years. The court did not count the six months he was being tortured, evidently considering, as Movsar joked bitterly, that he had been on holiday. To the question of how he endured all the torture, cold and hunger, he has one answer: "Only the Almighty knows. I died long ago, and I am not the person I used to be. If there is a hell on earth, I am in it. Only the Almighty will help me and the other Chechen guys who are rotting in prison, in the most literal sense of the word.

One time I was hanging in a cell for about 24 hours, handcuffed and naked, in unbelievable cold. To say I was in pain is to say nothing. I was yelling and twitching, and then I whispered some prayers and wished I might die. I cried out to the Almighty and I had a feeling that, where I was, He was absent and that my prayers were striking the wall and slithering down. I could see it happening and realized I was losing my mind."

Movsar is one of the Chechens who have not been broken. He does not agree to collaborate, to carry out dishonorable tasks for the prison administration. He has written no appeals, has no intention of applying for parole, and generally behaves like someone who knows he will never get out of prison alive. He spends nearly all his time in a punishment cell where, from 6 a.m. until 10 in the evening, he has to stand in the darkness. There is a layer of ice on the walls and water drips from the ceiling. There is always dirty, stagnant water on the concrete floor up to his ankles.

In early August of last year, FSB officers came to see him. They said they bore "warm greetings from [Kremlin-backed Chechnya head] Ramzan Kadyrov" and proposed that he should go to fight for Russia as a volunteer in Ukraine. For this he was promised his freedom, if he survived. Movsar chose prison. The main point, he says, is that it proved to him that Ramzan Kadyrov was fully aware that thousands of young Chechen men are rotting in prison for no reason.

Part Three

The Prison Guard

The overwhelming majority of people who work in Russia's prisons have fought or served in the Chechen Republic on contract. That affects the way they work when they return. The torturing, tormenting, and psychological oppression of Chechen prisoners perversely raises their self-esteem and helps them move up the career ladder. I managed to interview a middle-ranking prison officer who is unlike his colleagues. He could have become a human rights activist, but believes that by working behind the barbed wire he can do more to alleviate human suffering.

We shall call him Aleksei.

Aleksei: Right, then, I am going to give no names, positions, or, obviously, the name or location of the prison where I work.

Amina Umarova: For a few months you did not agree to talk to me. What made you change your mind?

Aleksei: There has been a lot of injustice in my life and it is a vicious circle. I realized I have to start with myself and I want to make amends. I am not without sin.

A law enforcement agent at 'Vladimirsky Central' prison. Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti

AU: Why are you working in prisons?

Aleksei: How can I put it, because of Chechnya or in spite of it. I found myself there several times, on two- or three-month assignments. Before that, after finishing my army conscription, I had joined the police. This was the only work there was in our town. We were sent from the police to the Chechen Republic on contract. We had very specific psychological training. I could not wait to get there. I wanted to send them all to hell, but I saw the reality instantly. I took part in special operations to detain terrorists, accompanying the snatch squads. Along with a "terrorist" they had beaten to death, the guys helped themselves to property from the houses. They would even take cars, and our superiors turned a blind eye to it. When I came back, psychologists worked with us and calmed me down. I even went to see a priest in church, but either he did not understand me or I did not understand him. But then I decided all the same to find out what it was with Chechnya and these Chechens, what was eating them. I borrowed books in the library and found a lot of information on the Internet. On my next trip I thought and saw things very differently.

AU: How many others among the contract soldiers were asking questions like you?

Aleksei: No one. At least no one I met. A license to do anything you want without fear of punishment detaches a person from reality. I never gave my fellow servicemen or superiors the slightest hint I might be interested in anything more than the authorities thought I should be.

AU: When did you have this change of heart?

Aleksei: It was in Staropromyslovsky district, on Precepts of Ilyich Street when we went to capture someone who was helping the fighters. One of our Chechen informants -- we called them "bitches" -- had denounced him. We arrived; there was no one there. We sat around in an ambush; no one appeared. The guys were hungry, angry, and decided to take it out on the occupants of the house. They broke down the doors and rushed in. In our work the main thing is surprise, shouting, and psychological disorientation. Swearing is deliberately used, the filthier the better. I noticed that paralyses the Chechens. The little apartment was tidy and modest. There was a woman of about fifty and her son. The young man was unnaturally pale, thin, neatly combed hair and enormous eyes, half lying on a couch. His mother was feeding him with a spoon. Our guys thought he was a wounded gunman and that the woman was nursing him.

At the shout to "Stand up!" "Move to the wall, bitch!" "Hands on your head! Legs apart! Move it!" she stood up and looked at us disapprovingly. In the midst of all the shouting and swearing, she said quietly but clearly that her son was an invalid, could not walk, and she would show us his certificate of invalidity.

The torturers would get so stuck into it that people's skulls would literally explode.

At this moment, her son had an epileptic fit but the guys pounced on him, dragged him and his blanket to the floor, and started kicking him. He was tossed up to the ceiling, as light as a feather, folded in the middle and fell back down. His mother threw herself at them like a tigress. They punched her so hard she hit the wall. The boy was bleeding from his ears and nose, and his eyes were wide open, as if in surprise. They stepped over his body and went to the kitchen and seized whatever food they could find. They went off on a rampage of destruction and killing. That day the group left more than twenty people dead and seized fifteen young men from their homes. I was ashamed and disgusted. I did not kill anyone, but I stood by and did not intervene. I stopped going out with the snatch squads. Afterwards I traded corpses.

AU: Please explain what trading corpses means.

Aleksei: Just that. They would bring a half-corpse, already done over by our men. Many of those detained in harsh conditions did not survive. In the prison truck, people were tortured with electric shocks. The torturers would get so stuck into it that people's skulls would literally explode. They burned people with blowlamps. They pulled their nails out with pliers. We had some who liked tying live people behind a tank and driving them along the roads and over fields. They brought back corpses stripped to the bone.

Pits of various sizes were dug to hold the detainees. Lime would be poured in and the prisoner lowered in there. Lime is corrosive. The top of the pits was covered over with logs. There could be five or six people in the larger ones. The dead would be down there together with the living for several days. The Chechens are very respectful towards the dead, but they would place a body face down and squat on its back. You can't stand up straight in a pit and they had to defecate in there. It was intolerable to walk past the pits because of the stench. People died like flies.

Their relatives would come for the bodies but you did not just return the corpse to them. Forms had to be filled in and all that. The Chechens knew we had orders not to return bodies and would offer us a lot of money. We knew the family did not, as a rule, have that kind of money, and that it would be collected by relatives, neighbors, and even the whole village chipping in. The money had to be shared with your superiors. I did not keep any of the ransom money myself. I just took it and handed it on up. There was not much I could do. The system draws you in and compels you to do things.

Prosecutors and judges are fully aware of what is going on. All that is required of investigators is not to leave obvious traces of their "work" and the rest takes care of itself.

AU: Why did you not just find another job?

Aleksei: Do you think they would allow that? I would die of "heart failure" or they would invent God only knows what sort of compromising material. But a human rights activist could not be doing as much as I am.

AU: How are you helping?

Aleksei: I don't help everyone. I don't help outright villains. You can tell straight away whether someone is guilty or not. There was one episode. They brought in a young Chechen lad. They had seized him in the street in Moscow, a university student. They just jumped on him because he looked like someone from the Caucasus and he ended up in the meat grinder. I've seen a lot of bad things but what they did to him ... The boy was very young. They raped him with a champagne bottle so that it broke in his rectum and they pulled it back out along with his innards. They did not call a doctor for a couple of days. I don't know how he did not bleed to death or die from the pain. They tortured him for a week and he signed everything they put in front of him in the hope that he could retract it during the court hearing. The court just accepted at face value what had been extracted under torture and slapped a 20-year sentence on him. I asked the guys guarding him: why did you do that? They said it was just his fate, and burst out laughing. You know, they think they hold sway over life and death.

I beat people up, too, and yell and swear at them, but when no one is watching I do what I can to help them. If I leave, my place will be taken by some sadistic brute. A lot of them are psychos. They've failed in life, been unemployed, forced to give bribes at every turn. Some officials have got it made and set themselves up nicely abroad. And these guys tell themselves, 'I'm no worse.' Nobody tells them not to beat and torment and torture. You can do it without the least fear of reprimand. All that happens is that you meet your targets better. Your boss doesn't care how you meet your targets. You improve his ratings and he rewards you with privileges, bonuses, and promotion. And his superiors, in turn, open the way for his career to progress and give access to all sorts of goodies.

Prosecutors and judges are fully aware of what is going on. All that is required of investigators is not to leave obvious traces of their "work" and the rest takes care of itself. If they do get exposed then, without a twinge of conscience, they will sentence the likes of me so we are never heard from again. Chechen prisoners who do not break and refuse to give the investigators the testimony they require are sent off to prisons in places like Irkutsk, Vladimir, Kirov, Sverdlovsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Omsk provinces, to Karelia and Khakassia.

In these camps there are "discipline squads" or "quarantine squads." The discipline squads consist of murderers and thieves with a string of convictions. The prison administration gives them privileged conditions and an easy life. They have their own gyms, right there, in the camp. They are allowed a large number of parcels from the outside world, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, women, television, mobile phones. On top of all that, the prison officials write favorable references for them and get them out of prison on parole.

AU: How else are you able to help prisoners you believe are innocent?

Aleksei: I get them telephones, medicine, food, warm clothing. Many are very ill and suffer from the cold. I help them to get their own back on the men of violence in the discipline squad, and I put a spoke in those bastards' wheels when I get the chance.

AU: Do you think there is any possibility of a review of the criminal charges brought against thousands of Chechens?

Aleksei: Yes, but only if President Vladimir Putin's regime collapses and military officers are stripped of their ranks and positions and brought to justice. Not just the current lot but the former ones who are now in "honorable retirement." For them, Chechnya has been a godsend. Now the problem is not just Putin. The whole system feels it is above the law and has lost touch with real life. They only look after their cronies, and then only in their own selfish interests, so that they don't bring everyone else down with them. Even if you get rid of those at the top, the situation in prisons will not change immediately. This issue needs to be thought through very carefully. If they did start to review the cases, the ones who would immediately benefit would be the most nimble and cunning, the real bastards. The prison administration would write up good reports for them. Bureaucracy consists of form-filling, long, drawn-out procedures. These guys are in bad shape, very bad. Here you and I are, talking about it, while at this very moment they are being tortured, violated, and killed. When they are not being tortured, they are in punishment cells. Do you know what goes on in Russian prisons? They use murderers, thieves, and professional criminals to help them break those who have been wrongfully convicted, to get them to sign self-incriminating statements. Those villains are the ones who get out on parole and who, once they are free, will again rob and kill again.

AU: It is difficult to convince people on the outside that what you are talking about is true and that this sort of thing really is going on.

Aleksei: That is not the problem. The problem is, who today can make the Kremlin take notice of Chechen prisoners? Who cares about them?

Elima passed away in November 2014, about six weeks after Amina Umarova met with her. Umarova has been unable to reach Movsar since August 2014 or Aleksei since October 2014.

A version of this report was published by the Henry Jackson Society on October 13, 2015. The original Russian language text was first published by RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Author’s Note

My interest in the mass detentions and jailing of Chechens during the wars goes back a long time. All the information about these detentions and trials is classified; speaking to detainees and their relatives is the only way to find out what happened. Thanks to free Internet applications such as Viber and WhatsApp, it's now possible to communicate directly with inmates.

My first conversation with a prisoner took place in July 2012, shortly after RFE/RL broadcast my first report on the plight of jailed Chechens and the statement of the republic's ombudsman according to which authorities planned to create a commission to help inmates adapt after their release from jail. It's important to note that the wealth and the social status of inmates' families play a big role in their release.

After this program was aired, a Chechen serving time at a prison near the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, close to the Arctic Circle, called me at the office and asked: "Are you genuinely interested in this issue?" My affirmative answer was followed by a long pause. "We are not completely forgotten, after all," he finally said with a sigh. He told me his story. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, of which he had served 13 ½ at the time. He was found guilty of staging an explosion that had occurred one month after his detention.

Why didn't the young man leave Chechnya at the height of the second Chechen war? The answer is very simple, although Russian soldiers did not understand it. His mother, who had raised him and his sister on her own, who had worked hard all her life and was in poor health, categorically refused to leave. He could simply not abandon her, alone under the bombs.

Elima, whose brother Adam was also jailed, died of a terminal brain tumor in November 2014, about six weeks after we met. At this point, all she had was a handful of family photos that she carried everywhere with her.

Gazing at these pictures, it was hard to believe that the ghostly pale, gaunt woman next to me was once a happy, smiling woman with delicate fingers and a strong, proud chin. Adam's detention and torture had turned her life upside down. She had lost her parents early, her beloved husband had left, and all her plans and dreams had been shattered.

The last time I spoke to Movsar was in August 2014. When I call his mobile phone now, all I hear is a gloomy woman's voice telling me in Russian that this number no longer exists. It's like being told Movsar no longer exists.

I don't know whether Aleksei still works in that prison.

The fear of persecution often paralyzes those who remember their grandparents whispering about the man executed for taking a pitchfork from the fields or the neighbors who disappeared without a trace. Aleksei was given up at birth, placed in an orphanage, and experienced a lot of sorrow in his life. He still found the kindness in his heart to help others.

But he, too, chose not take any risks. He has not been returning my calls. It was a Chechen inmate who put me in contact with him, to show that not all Russian soldiers were willing to fight on foreign soil and kill innocent people.

My investigation, however, doesn't stop here. It is only just starting.
- Amina Umarova

  • Story: Amina Umarova
  • Design: Wojtek Grojec