Harrassment, threats and intimidation: when human rights defenders pursue torture cases

Editor’s note: This is the sixth 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 , fourth and fifth post.

Abducted, torture and left in a basement cell while handcuffed to a steam heating pipe for three and a half months; Islam Umarpashayev had disappeared. Chechen Special Police Task Force had showed up at his house after Islam had posted a message critical of police treatment on the Internet using his cell phone. After four months, his family is desperately seeking their missing son. Read the full story in last weeks blog post.

Applying to the European Court of Human Rights and Islam’s release

While Islam Umarpashayev, who was abducted torture and detained, remained in a basement and chained to a steam heating pipe for almost four months, his father and other relatives were trying to find Islam on their own.

On 15 January 2010, Irisbay Umarpashayev applied to the Chechen representation of the interregional nongovernmental organisation Committee Against Torture, asking human rights defenders to conduct a public investigation in connection with his son’s kidnapping.

It was evident that there was a chance to save Islam, but one had to act quickly. By 3 March the Committee Against Torture applied to the European Court of Human Rights, which granted the application a priority status and communicated it to the government. That was the key step contributing to Islam’s release.

One day at the beginning of spring, the captive was visited by OMON (Chechen special police task force) headquarters head Aslan Khizriyev. He told Islam that his father was applying to all instances, including the Strasbourg court. According to Khizriyev, Commander Alikhan Tsakayev was very bothered by that fact, and, therefore, Islam would soon be released; but, in exchange for freedom, he would have to say that he had been either in the Moscow region or Dagestan and do his best to make his father Irisbay withdraw his application from the ECtHR. The visitor removed Islam’s handcuffs and since then the captive could move around the room.

On 2 April Islam had his beard cut, and in the evening, he was taken to the Oktyabrsky District Department of Internal Affairs. There he met his father. The police told the Umarpashayevs that they should return in several days to sign false testimonies that law enforcers would prepare by that time. He added that, failing to do so, they would be deprived of all security guarantees.

Sabotage of the official investigation and attempts to put pressure on the victims

However, the father and son decided not to sign any forged documents, but ensure punishment of perpetrators by all means. Several days later Islam flew to Nizhny Novgorod for treatment and rehabilitation accompanied by Committee Against Torture staff. Lawyers from CAT obtained detailed explanations from victims and witnesses and submitted them to investigative authorities.

By doing so, the Umarpashayevs and human rights defenders representing their interests tossed a challenge to rather powerful people, like Chechen OMON commander Alikhan Tsakayev — officer in the order of Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov and Ramzan Kadyrov’s protégé. It is obvious that unlawful detention of a captive at the OMON premises is not possible without the commander’s knowledge. Thus, criminal proceedings upon the fact of Umarpashayev’s abduction had the prospects of becoming a criminal case against one of the closest and mightiest supporters of the omnipotent Chechen president.

Thus, it was not a surprise that the victims’ family faced intimidation.

On 12 April 2010, the father and one of Islam’s brothers were taken to the Oktyabrsky District Department of Internal Affairs where law enforcers urged them to bring the victim back to Chechnya as soon as possible and withdraw their applications; otherwise they would have “big problems.” Around midnight the police called Committee Against Torture Chairman Igor Kalyapin and demanded that he should send Umarpashayev back to Grozny with “the first train”. The hostages were released late at night only after lengthy negotiations and personal involvement of the Chechen Interior Minister.

Taking in account the situation, human rights defenders filed a petition to Russian Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin for the criminal case instigated in connection with Umarpashayev’s abduction to be referred to an investigative authority of another Russian region or to the Central Office of the Investigative Committee. However, the petition was dismissed.

The Committee Against Torture managed to ensure that the victim’s father and his family were enrolled into a witness protection programme. But in practice, state protection measures were limited to supervision by just another local policeman – senior lieutenant Khanpasha Altanbayev. Soon Altanbayev sided up with the team intimidating the victim’s family. On 17 August 2010, he told Irisbay that they should immediately go to see the OMON commander. One of Irisbay’s sons did not want to let his father go there alone and volunteered to accompany him; they were taken to a private house in Grozny, where they met with Alikhan Tsakayev who for several hours put severe moral pressure on them.

After that incident, the CAT had to bring Irisbay to Nizhny Novgorod as well. There the Umarpashayevs were accommodated in a special flat guarded round-the-clock.

Soon Chechen investigators who were basically stonewalling the investigation changed their strategy to morally wearing down the victims and exhausting human rights defenders’ financial resources.

They started sending notifications requiring Islam and Irirsbay to arrive in Grozny for participation in investigative actions – identification of Special Police Task Force officers, examination of the scene of action, confrontations, etc. Islam and Irisbay, accompanied by CAT staff kept going to Grozny, but each time it turned out that the investigative action had been postponed “for objective reasons”. At the end of 2010 and beginning 2011 there were several such situations. In response to victims’ representative’s remarks that Islam’s trips to Chechnya from Nizhny Novgorod for participation in investigative actions not conducted “for objective reasons” were neither easy, nor cheap, a special investigator of the Investigative Administration of the Investigative Committee for Chechnya said that “in accordance with the Russian Code of Criminal Procedure, the victim should be located at the place of the pre-trial investigation.” It was impossible not to go; it would give the authorities a reason to claim that the victims were ignoring the investigation and issue a decision on compulsory attendance. And then anything could happen to the father and son.

Obviously, the idea was to make the victims and human rights defenders give up and stop seeking justice.

In addition, OMON commander Tsakayev refused to provide pictures of all his subordinates, and there was no power in Chechnya that could oblige him to observe law. As a result, on 28 September 2010 Islam was shown only 12 pictures; nevertheless, he recognized two of his jailors.

Since that moment and until the end of spring 2011, there were no meaningful investigative steps taken in Grozny.

In May 2010 Russian Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin also urged Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin to transfer the criminal case to an investigative authority of a different region. Bastrykin dismissed Lukin’s request as well.

Transfer of the criminal case to a federal investigative group

Meanwhile, Umarpashayev’s case received wide coverage in Russia and on the international level.

On 17 December 2010 following a personal request of Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg, the third petition for transfer of the investigation to the Central Office of the Russian Investigative Committee was sustained by Russian Investigative Committee Head Bastrykin. The case was referred to an investigative group from Moscow headed by special investigator, Colonel of Justice Igor Sobol.

On 11 February 2011 Sobol conducted the first investigative step – examination of the scene of crime, i.e. Special Police Task Force base in Grozny. It was almost empty; only one officer came out to meet the group (he was immediately identified by the victim). Islam showed the building where he had been kept, the wash-house where he had been washed, and even wolves and bears whose food he had been promised to become.

Since that moment one of the key obstacles on the way of the investigation – inaction of bullied Chechen investigators – has been removed. However, the local police are now opposing the inquiry with special cynicism and ostentation.

We would like to thank Committee Against Torture for writing and submitting this article.

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  1. Chechen lawyers faced slurs and intimidation by state officials « World Without Torture
  2. Human rights defenders: those who fight through the risks « World Without Torture

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