The case of Islam Umarpashayev: enforced disappearance, torture and detention in Chechnya

Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in an ongoing series from Russian member centre Committee Against Torture on their use of a Joint Mobile Group to investigation human rights violations, such as torture. See the first, second, third and fourth post.

The Interregional Committee against Torture are investigating the enforced disappearance, ill-treatment and almost four-month long unlawful detention of Grozny resident Islam Irisbayevich Umarpashayev at a Chechen Special Police Task Force (OMON) base. The crime took place between December 2009 and April 2010, later the victim was released due to international pressure.  The investigative authorities of Chechnya cynically stonewalled the investigation. In February 2011 the case was referred to the Central Office of the Russian Investigative Committee; however, Chechen law enforcers are still opposing the investigation with unparalleled vigor.

For Chechnya this case is an example of a unique situation when an abducted and released individual has not only described the circumstances of the crime and people in charge of it, but is also actively seeking justice and prosecution of perpetrators.

Islam Umarpashayev’s enforced disappearance

At the beginning of winter 2009, 23-year old Islam Umarpashayev posted a comment online accusing the police of cruel treatment of Chechen residents and urging the population to put an end to it. Islam had connected to the Internet via his personal cell phone.

In the early morning of 11 December 2009, armed people who introduced themselves as agents of the Oktyabrsky District Department of Internal Affairs of Grozny turned up under the pretext of a passport check at the home where Islam lived with his parents and brothers. The family was orders to produce their cell phones. Having inspected them, the agents asked who owned the Sony Ericsson – the cell phone Islam had used to access the Internet.  Islam stepped forward and was immediately led away. They told Islam’s father that it was just “for a couple of hours for a talk.” When the latter tried to protest, the agents threatened to shoot him.

Soon after the armed men had left, Irisbay, Islam’s father, went to the Oktyabrsky District Department of Internal Affairs, together with a lawyer he had hired, to find out the reasons for his son’s detention and his further fate. However, the duty officer told them that Islam was not in the building and the department staff had not detained anyone that night and morning. Further attempts of relatives to establish his location failed – Islam disappeared without a trace following unacknowledged detention. On 28 December 2009 the Interdistrict Investigative Department of Grozny instigated criminal proceedings no. 6804228 regarding Islam Umarpashayev’s abduction.

Islam Umarpashayev’s unlawful detention at the OMON base

Later the Islam described the events that followed his detention. He was placed in a white car with blacked-out windows, his head was covered with a jacket, and the car drove away in an unknown direction. Some 40 minutes later, the captive was led out of the car and taken downstairs to a basement. Later he would give a detailed description of that place in his statement.

There were several people standing around him. All of them were Chechen, except for one Russian man that the rest called Kostya. Kostya showed Islam a print out of his chat history and started asking questions:  “Why do you hate the police? Where is the weapon which you are going to use to kill us? Who are your accomplices? Where are militants hiding?” Islam had nothing to say, and the agents started beating him.

“The beatings were long and painful, and if I actually knew about weapons and militants, I would have told them, but I had nothing to say”, Islam said later.

In about an hour the tormentors became convinced that Islam really knew nothing about militants and had no links to them, and the “enhanced” interrogation stopped. Before that, a man, who introduced himself as Head of the Chechen OMON Headquarters, came to the basement and ordered them to stop the beatings as Islam’s relatives had been trying to find him.

Islam was kept in the basement handcuffed to a steam heating pipe for three and a half months.

A few days after the abduction, several Chechens, introducing themselves as Organized Crime Department officers, came to see Islam and asked him the same questions as Kostya. When Islam refused to cooperate, they threatened to “throw him to the bear” and left. No one asked Islam any questions after that. He was sometimes given food – first once in two or three days, and later every day. At some point they even put a bed and a mattress into the basement. Islam was escorted to the toilet at nights and once in two months allowed to wash himself.

Only shaving was prohibited, and soon Islam grew a long “Wahhabi” beard. Prohibiting shaving suggests that the victim was basically “fattened for slaughter”, ie. being prepared to be presented as a killed militant.  Human rights NGOs have documented many instances when bodies of young men detained by law enforcers were later found among bodies of “militants killed in a fight”.

Step by step, the captive started looking around and concluded that he was kept at the Chechen OMON base in Grozny. Eventually, his guards also stopped concealing that fact.

In his statement Islam has described the place of his confinement and surrounding territories with all possible details — layout, wall colour, door material, pipe connections, location of air conditioning units, fencing structure and configuration, number of staircase steps. The building where he was kept was located to the right from the entrance gate, in front of a two-storied headquarters building with a large inscription “OMON”; there were several buildings looking like private houses nearby. The premises were surrounded by a fence made of concrete slabs. Behind the headquarters building one could see barracks, a bathhouse where he sometimes had a chance to wash himself and a mosque. Right in front of the exit from the improvised prison one could see a house that belonged to Special Police Task Force commander Alikhan Tsakayev, as Islam inferred from guards’ conversations. Behind the house there was an enclosure with several wolves and bears, the ones whom Islam had been promised as food.  Sometimes Islam heard cries and pleas for mercy from a neighbouring room where superiors beat common policemen for disobedience.

Thus December, January and February passed and March began…

Read next week for part two of this story on the investigation into Islam’s enforced disappearance, torture and unlawful detention.

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  1. Harrassment, threats and intimidation: when human rights defenders pursue torture cases « World Without Torture
  2. Chechen lawyers faced slurs and intimidation by state officials « World Without Torture

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