Chechnya’s brave ‘mice’ fight back against brutality
On Jan 27, Magomed Taramov was at his mother’s flat assembling a baby bed to go in the small house he had built in a family compound. The quiet 20-year-old, a former mixed martial arts champion, was to be married in April, and he and his sister were planning to discuss the wedding with his fiancée the next day.
But he would miss the meeting and the ceremony. Mr Taramov’s father, a retired military officer who is separated from his mother, called and told him to come back to nearby Krasnaya Turbina, a village outside the regional capital Grozny. Police were waiting there to arrest him.
This month, a judge found that Mr Taramov and Dzhamalai Tazbiyev, 19, had “harboured intentions” to go to Syria and join an “illegal armed formation” and sentenced them to five years in prison. The verdict, based on confessions the two men testified had been obtained through torture, infuriated relatives and neighbours.
“The only intention he harboured over the past three years was to get married as soon as possible and start having kids and a household,” Mr Taramov’s sister Seda Edilgeriyeva told The Sunday Telegraph.
“There was a lot of untruth and violations,” his mother Raisa Edilgeriyeva said of the trial. “Just lies everywhere, lies and defamation.”
But rather than swallow their anger, the villagers did something unthinkable in Chechnya, a mostly Muslim republic in Russia ruled with an iron fist by rebel-turned-loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov: 162 people signed an open letter calling on Moscow to intervene, bringing the wrath of the authorities down upon themselves.
“Little by little people are getting tired of this lawlessness,” said one of the signers, who spoke anonymously for fear of further repressions. “Even a tiny mouse driven into a corner will with its last strength bite its attacker. What we’re doing now is that last bite.”
Vladimir Putin appointed Mr Kadyrov to run Chechnya, asking few questions about human rights violations as long as he stamped out Islamist insurgency.
Although terrorist attacks have grown less frequent in Chechnya, anti-terrorism crackdowns by police and security forces have only become more brutal. Mr Taramov and Mr Tazbiyev were caught up in a wave of arrests after a group of young men – the authorities linked them to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) – attacked a police officer in Grozny on Dec 17.
The interior ministry reacted quickly. An investigation by independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta found that police rounded up acquaintances of the attackers, then acquaintances of these acquaintances and so on until some 200 people had been detained without charge. At least 27 of them were shot at a police base on the night of Jan 25, according to the newspaper. It is trying to confirm the alleged executions of 29 more.
Mr Taramov and Mr Tazbiyev, an award-winning piano player, were finally accused in March. The questionable charges, which their lawyer Vladimir Rutkovsky said were almost exactly the same as those against several others, alleged they had planned to travel to Syria by foot.
In court, the pair testified they had been tortured to confess at a riot police headquarters.
“They put me on a cot, tied my hands and feet and beat me with an iron rod, starting here,” Mr Taramov said, gesturing to his ribs, Novaya Gazeta reported from an August hearing. The prosecutor did not respond to the allegations in court. For five to six days, his captors would beat him and shock him with an electric current until he passed out, he said.
In response, relatives and neighbours called on Russia’s prosecutor general Yury Chaika to bring to justice those who had detained and tortured them. The backlash came the day of the letter’s publication. Mr Rutkovsky saw Mr Tazbiyev’s uncle taken into a police station, after which he sent the lawyer a chilling audio message: “They’re beating, they’re beating, they’re beating”.
When the lawyer saw him, he was disoriented and appeared to be suffering internal injuries. The police declined to comment and the interior ministry could not be reached as The Sunday Telegraph went to press.
More than 60 residents of Krasnaya Turbina were then brought to a meeting with Kheda Saratova, a member of Mr Kadyrov’s human rights council, and Magomed Magomadov, the police officer accused of torturing the two men. Ms Saratova later announced that they had admitted they didn’t know what they were signing.
She also said Mr Tazbieyev’s uncle and Mr Taramov’s father told her that they had not been tortured. But four residents later told The Sunday Telegraph they had understood the essence of the letter.
“I knew (what I signed), and people knew, but when they said, ‘We will rape you in front of your family,’ what can you do?” one of them said. “People are afraid of the regime, afraid of repressions.”
Mr Chaika has not officially responded to the letter’s allegations of torture or illegal detention.
According to Yelena Milashina, a Novaya Gazeta journalist who has received death threats for her work in Chechnya, Mr Kadyrov’s brutal anti-terrorist campaigns are increasingly provoking dissent like the Krasnaya Turbina letter.
“Some good things are happening in Chechnya, but they pale in comparison to the violence that the regime is driving through the people like a bulldozer,” she said.
Others may pick up a gun rather than a pen, warned Gregory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot website.
“People who see unjust realities they will keep reacting in various forms,” he said. “It’s not a particular act of violence but the system itself which is oppressive.”
‘There was a lot of untruth and violation. Just lies everywhere, lies and defamation’
Under Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, brutal crackdowns have taken place by police and security forces