Chechnya Punishes the Families of Militants

Chechnya's violent surge took another turn this week when the bodies of a husband and wife were found stuffed in the trunk of their car in the capital of Grozny. Zarema Sadulayeva, the leader of a charity that helped children scarred by the Chechen conflict, and her husband Alik Djabrailov, were seized from their office by a group of men less than a month after human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was murdered in similar circumstances. What follows is a report from NEWSWEEK's Russian-language partner, Russky NEWSWEEK, on the campaigns being waged against not only militants, but their families, too.

Maskhud Abdullayev was missing for 10 days before he showed up on Grozny TV. The young man—the son of Supyan, the No. 2 in Chechen's separatist rebel movement—was among a group of Russians deported from Egypt for expired visas on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow last month. Abdullayev vanished after landing in the Russian capital, rousing the concerns of human-rights groups who feared he had been killed. When he eventually appeared on TV, it was to condemn his father's activities and to call on him to turn himself in. Then the son disappeared again.

Maskhud's travails seem to have had a benign resolution. On July 22, he was transferred to his mother on the border between Russia and Azerbaijan; his mother told Russky NEWSWEEK he'd been unable to call sooner because he couldn't unlock his Egyptian SIM card. Human-rights groups monitoring his case asked NEWSWEEK "not to poke into this affair, to avoid hurting the guy." Yet his return is less the end of the story than a cautionary tale underscoring the harsh tactics aimed at bringing Chechnya's insurgency under control. The week before Abdullayev was reunited with his mother, human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova—who was helping relatives hunt for Maskhud—was kidnapped and murdered. Estemirova's colleagues at her group Memorial believe Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was behind her death. Kadyrov angrily denies this charge, but Russian analysts have little doubt that the killing was almost certainly connected to her work reporting attacks aimed at the families of militants.

Chechen authorities first began targeting the relatives of those it deemed terrorists in 2004, after Chechen militants took more than 1,000 hostages at a school in Beslan. According to groups like Memorial, militants' family members have since been harassed, tortured, taken hostage, and had their property taken away—most often simply burned to the ground. Chechen authorities eased up during an amnesty period announced by Kadyrov, but attacks against the families resumed in 2008 and intensified after a series of assassination attempts against high-ranking officials in Chechnya and the volatile republic of Ingushetia earlier this year.

Five years ago, the first targets were high profile. Men saying they were acting with Kadyrov's authority stopped the cars carrying eight relatives of Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov in December 2004. The eight were released six months later—two months after Maskhadov was killed. Maskhadov's older brother, Lecha, now lives in a modest, one-story house with a clean little yard. A tall, reticent old man, he came out to meet Russky NEWSWEEK's correspondent, but, according to his son Solman, is too still traumatized to discuss their six months of detention. By Solman's account, 12 people were kept huddled in a in a small store room on an old farm near Khosi-Yurt. "They fed us until we were ready to burst, but they took us out to the toilet only once a day," Solman said. "If you knocked too much, they would start beating you up with clubs." He said the guards tended not to beat the old people, "except once or twice with a club," but the young people bore the brunt of the brutality. Guards punched Maskhadov's nephew Ikhvan Magomedov daily and tortured his niece, Khadizhat Satuyeva, with beatings and electric current.

Relatives of other separatists have also disappeared under mysterious circumstances over the years. Some have returned, others have not. Meanwhile, militants' families are now facing another tactic: punitive arson. Since last summer, Human Rights Watch staffers have recorded 26 such fires. The burnings appear well organized. One elderly man, Ramzan Gakayaev, recalled how men armed with submachine guns drew up to his house last December, escorted him outside and began pouring gasoline on his home. Gakayaev, who had been beaten by his own nephews for trying to dissuade them from staying with the militants, asked the man in charge to spare his neighbor's house from the fire. The arsonists agreed, brought in machinery to tear down the wall closest to the next-door home, and then set Gakayaev's house on fire. Official agencies do not deny these incidents. Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the Chechyan human-rights ombudsman, believes that the arsonists are motivated by only one desire—to avenge relatives or coworkers who were killed.

The victimization doesn't always stop at burning. In one case, told to NEWSWEEK by murdered activist Estemirova, a woman was summoned to municipal authorities after her house was burned down 12 months ago. The woman, told to bring her son back, packed up a few belongings and set off to the village where she thought she might find him with the militants. Instead, she was detained and brutally beaten. During questioning, interrogators broke her leg and said, "So you were going into the forest to see your son? Now you won't be walking anytime soon!" She was charged as an accomplice to the extremists and convicted. The little sack with food and underwear that she had been carrying into the forest was deemed to be "food supplies for the militants."

Other republics are also trying to apply the Chechen tactics. Earlier this year in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan, visitors to the office of the public organization Mothers of Dagestan described to Russky NEWSWEEK how Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, the now-deceased chief of the Dagestan police administration tried to persuade the elders of the village of Gurbuki to drive out the families of militants. Three families were given a choice: either publicly renounce their relatives or leave the village. They chose the second option. Elsewhere, though, signs of a local backlash are emerging. The minister tried to carry out the same plan in the villages of Gubden, Gimry, and Balakhani, but residents were reluctant to cooperate. In the village of Gimry, where virtually all residents are related to 12 men on the wanted list, attempts to pressure them stirred up a wave of outrage. Now even Aliaskhab Magomedov, the head of the village administration, shrugs his shoulders when asked about Ibragim Gadzhidadayev, the leader of the local militants: "What about him? He's done nothing bad to the ordinary people around here," he says. "What kind of general is it who beats an ordinary peasant?"

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