Incidents of masked men driving in cars without licence plates, and in full view of witnesses, seizing their prey, have occurred more than 40 times this year alone.
Weeks pass, then months – the victim isn’t heard from again. Officials say almost nothing in response.
Ingushetia, with a population of about 300,000, is a tiny fragment of the Caucasus region. Its president, Murat Zyazikov, has promoted it as a place of prosperity and stability, in contrast to its neighbour, Chechnya.
But the kidnappings have become a grim echo of the fear that grips Chechnya, where the forces fighting separatists allegedly abduct civilians with impunity. Tens of thousands of Chechens have fled to Ingushetia, hoping to escape such abuses.
“The same thing that’s been happening in Chechnya is happening in Ingushetia: abductions and killings,” said Usam Baysayev of the Memorial human rights group’s office in Nazran, Ingushetia’s main city.
Although the Chechen war has occasionally spilled into Ingushetia and Russian officials believe that separatists take shelter there, the wave of kidnappings has no obvious connection with the war.
The victims are Ingush, not Chechen, and there is no obvious pattern as to who is seized. Young and old, rich and poor, politically connected and intensely private people – all have gone missing.
Experts say they suspect the victims’ probable destination is Chechnya – specifically Khankala, the base of Moscow’s Federal Security Service or FSB, the main successor agency of the KGB. Zyazikov, the Ingush president, is a former high official in the FSB.
“Formerly, bandits and slave traders could easily cross the borders of Chechnya and take captives from all over Russia,” military columnist Vyacheslav Izmailov wrote recently in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“Now it’s officers of law enforcement agencies, and it seems they are digging pits at Khankala not just for Chechens but also for the inhabitants of other regions of Russia.”
Keeping prisoners in pits is a widespread practice in the Caucasus, employed by bandits, rebels and even Russian soldiers. Regional law enforcement agencies and the Russian prosecutor general’s office refused to comment on the abductions other than to say an investigation into one incident was under way.
About 1500 desperate relatives rallied in protest in Nazran at the end of March. The deputy interior minister of Ingushetia, Zyaudin Kotiyev, surrounded by riot troops, persuaded the people to disperse.
At the beginning of March, 29-year-old Rashid Ozdoyev was kidnapped. He had worked in the republic prosecutor’s office, overseeing the legality of FSB actions.
Five days before he was grabbed he had been in Moscow, filing a 14-page complaint against the Ingush FSB with the Russian general prosecutor’s office.
His father, Boris Ozdoyev, a well-connected retired judge, conducted his own investigation, showing pictures to people who work at detention centres.
He found out that his son’s car had been blocked by several FSB cars, and that he was taken first to Vladikavkaz, in neighbouring North Ossetia, and eventually to Khankala.
“The fact that the special services are engaged
Ozdoyev failed to get a meeting or any answers from the local FSB head, Sergei Koryakov. But he said he got plenty of anonymous phone calls warning him to stop the search.
“I’m on the knife’s edge, I know that. Still, I want to find justice or I won’t be able to stand alongside my son before the Almighty,” Ozdoyev said.
His cousin, Musa Ozdoyev, a member of the Ingush parliament and a former adviser to Zyazikov, wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin alleging corruption, embezzlement and vote-rigging under Zyazikov.
“The fact that the special services are engaged in the abductions is beyond doubt,” Musa Ozdoyev said to the AP news agency.
“Statistically, the number of abductions in Ingushetia is nearly as high as in Chechnya,” said Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch. “Ingushetia has become no less dangerous than Chechnya in this regard.”