Chechnya: The reality behind appearances

Chechnya’s reality of fear and abuse will keep eroding the facade Ramzan Kadyrov has created.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov attends ceremony to confer the ''City of Military Glory'' title to five Russian towns, at the Kremlin [Getty]
Ramzan Kadyrov attends a ceremony to confer the 'City of Military Glory' title to five Russian towns, at the Kremlin [Getty]

The documentary Chechnya – War without Trace offers a stark contrast to the old image of a war-torn Chechnya. Instead, it presents a more current and glamorous facade: glistening mosques, wide avenues, parks, and picture-perfect buildings. Yet these images of the visible prosperity in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya emphasize one unchanged variable from the past 20 years of its history: terror.

Among the best known names in Chechnya are Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova. Both of them, a journalist and a human rights defender, collected information about heinous human rights violations in Chechnya during the first and second Chechen wars – such as mass murder, torture, and extrajudicial executions – and made them known in Russia and to the world.

Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 in her apartment building in Moscow; Natalia Estemirova was executed in 2009 in Chechnya, her body found on a roadside in the neighbouring republic.

Witness – Chechnya: War Without Trace

In April 2009, three months before Estemirova was killed, the Counter-Terrorist Operation that lasted nearly a decade in Chechnya had finished, and Chechnya was officially declared to be a peaceful region under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov. 

Over-arching message

The over-arching message was very clear – as Kadyrov began building a positive image of Chechnya, criticism of his authority or exposure of the atrocities that continued under his flagship were not to be tolerated.

Having no one left in Chechnya to turn to for help against the all-powerful security squadrons under Kadyrov, the local population was left alone with a repressive machinery that crushed any dissenting voice. Many human rights groups in Russia understood what such a vacuum would mean for the people of Chechnya.

As a result, the Committee Against Torture, a non-governmental organisation based in Nizhny Novgorod, proposed the creation of a new mechanism, the Joint Mobile Group.

The purpose of JMG was to continue the progress of human rights work in Chechnya that had been cut short by Estemirova’s murder.

Suddenly, the image of a prosperous Chechnya, the beacon of stability and security in Russia, was at risk.


Working in shifts, several dozen lawyers and journalists from all over Russia began conducting public investigations of human rights abuses in Chechnya and providing legal assistance to victims. Initial cases looked into abuses carried out by Kadyrov’s security services, and as the group’s popularity grew, later efforts were directed at implicating Chechen police forces in grave human rights violations.

Against the backdrop of the local human rights community, in which activists were either coopted into the government, threatened, or forced to leave altogether, JMG came across as brazenly confident, professional, and unafraid in the eyes of the population.

Suddenly, the image of a prosperous Chechnya, the beacon of stability and security in Russia, was at risk.

Regular abuses

JMG was exposing regular abuses by police in Chechnya, including top-level officials. The group was increasingly becoming a problem for the Chechen authorities, as appearances were compromised and Kadyrov’s power publicly questioned.

A year after JMG appeared for the first time in Chechnya, the government began using its arsenal of familiar tools – co-opting, intimidation, smear campaigns, and direct threats – against the group. Members of JMG were detained more than once by the Chechen police and their equipment was confiscated; relatives of torture victims who appealed for JMG’s assistance were threatened by security services. Entire families had to be evacuated from Chechnya by the Committee Against Torture, an NGO overseeing JMG’s work.

Last December, the office of the Joint Mobile Group in Chechnya was attacked and burned down, and the staff was briefly detained by the Chechen police.

This June, a group of masked men armed with sledge hammers, metal bars, and electrical saws forced their way into the recently renovated office of the NGO and destroyed it.

The staff of JMG, fearing for their lives, had to flee the office through a second-story window. JMG was unable to find anyone to rent them a new space for their office until the daughter of human rights legend Natalia Estemirova came forward and offered for them to move into her mother’s apartment.

Culture of appearances

Chechnya has a powerful culture of appearances. Yet even as Kadyrov brands Chechnya as the safest place in the world, a terrifying reality is bursting through its glamorous landscape of marble skyscrapers and golden leafed mosques.

As long as federal law enforcement agencies neglect to investigate cases of torture in which Chechen police and security services are directly implicated, families of suspected militants in Chechnya will continue to carry the burden of collective punishment.

Moreover, interacting with foreigners or journalists may cause one to lose their job or find their life at risk, and joking about Kadyrov or his entourage on mobile messaging applications can lead to being personally castigated on local TV by Kadyrov himself.

Chechnya’s reality of fear and abuse, as documented in every case investigated by JMG, will keep eroding the facade Kadyrov has created. For many of us, it is still July 2009.

Anton Ryzhov is a lawyer for the NGO Committee Against Torture, based in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, which provides legal assistance and medical rehabilitation to victims of torture and represents their interests in Russian courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.