- Rights groups say abductions on the rise
By Amie Ferris-Rotman
GROZNY, Russia, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Bearded police in camouflage clothes, carrying assault rifles and long daggers, stop cars with tinted windows in the rebuilt Chechen capital -- their latest ploy in the hunt for Islamist fighters.
As one car pulls over, a policeman jerks open the back door, slides in and slashes the dark tinted film off the car windows with his 10-inch (25 cm) dagger. "If you don't like it, take it up with the president. Militants could be hiding behind these," he snarls at a pair of nervous passengers, exposing a row of sparkling gold teeth.
Rights groups say Chechnya, the southern republic which has fought two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, is becoming a fear-crippled region where the militia of President Ramzan Kadyrov, the rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, has amassed enormous power.
Many Chechens dread the appearance of law enforcement officers, whose black woollen hats bear the letters "K.R.A.", the initials of the president's names, Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov.
Thousands of "Kadyrovtsy" are eager to prove they are defeating the Islamic insurgency across the North Caucasus that aims to create an independent Muslim state ruled by sharia.
Many of them fought for independence from Moscow but, like Kadyrov, switched sides. Rights groups say they enforce decrees issued by Kadyrov, such as a ban on alcohol and making women cover their heads in state buildings, regardless of the constitutionality of such rules.
Residents tremble at the sight of the black-booted police, who can "take us away for being against a law we don't even know is real or even exists," said one young man called Aslan.
The Russian human rights group Memorial says the climate of fear intensified rapidly after the Kremlin lifted security restrictions in April, transferring enormous power from Moscow to Kadyrov's militia.
Women complain that the militia taunt them for not wearing headscarves near state buildings such as airports or schools -- which bear large smiling portraits of Kadyrov and his father and predecessor, Akhmad, assassinated by a bomb blast in 2004.
TAKEN AT NIGHT
Compounding the fear is the increasing number of abductions which rights groups like Amnesty International blame on the authorities and law enforcement personnel.
Locals compare the situation to the Great Terror Soviet citizens suffered under Josef Stalin in the late 1930s, when millions of people were arbitrarily sent to labour camps or exiled, using fake confessions extracted under torture. "It's the Terror all over again," said one woman in Grozny whose friend disappeared when his flat was raided.
Kadyrov's spokesman, Alvi Karimov, said rights groups were misinterpreting the situation and failed to appreciate that Chechnya had lived through two devastating wars.
"They (rights groups) are not looking at the fact Chechnya suffered terrible wars, we are a post-conflict region. The power structures do everything they can to liquidate militants, provide safety and rebuild the economy," he said.
Memorial, whose activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya in July, a crime that drew widespread condemnation, estimates at least 86 people were abducted in the first nine months of this year in the republic of 1 million.
This is just over double the 2008 total, almost triple that of 2007, Memorial says, but significantly lower than 2002, at the height of the second Chechen war, when there were 544, most of whom showed up dead.
Of those kidnapped this year, nine have been found dead but most have simply disappeared, said Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial. Relatives say the victims are taken from their homes at night by armed men on suspicion of being Islamist rebels.
Minkail Ezhiev, who set up the Chechen Civil Society Forum in 2005 to encourage dialogue with the authorities, said: "No one knows where they are, where they've been taken to, or what they do to them. There are no trials.
"They are tortured and beaten up ... and then we bury them".
Ezhiev said abducted men were being offered up to 500,000 roubles ($16,260) by authorities to "confess" to being a militant on television.
Abductees' families were bribed to denounce their relatives, and abductions were used to support the authorities' claim that they are beating the Islamist insurgency, he said.
Kadyrov has consistently denied allegations of involvement in abductions or torture and says he is successfully destroying rebels.
Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme Director, Nicola Duckworth, said abductions were Chechnya's most far-reaching problem.
"The scale of it and the lack of investigations into mass graves, previous disappearances, the failure to exhume bodies and identify them are just perpetuating the trauma in Chechnya," she told Reuters by e-mail from London.
Earlier this week the head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, Alexander Bortnikov, said security forces had detained almost 800 militants in the North Caucasus this year and seized 1,600 firearms and 490 homemade bombs.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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