Torture in Russia: From denial to mass media entertainment

On March 22, terrorists, reportedly hired by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, carried out an attack on the Krokus City Hall. According to various estimates, between 137 and 145 people were killed. Among them six children.

The recent attack on concertgoers at the Krokus City Hall in Moscow has shocked people in many countries. The killers cold-bloodedly shot defenceless and innocent people who came to the concert, finished off some of them (one even had his throat slit with a knife), and then tried to escape. The senseless cruelty of the terrorists was complemented by the atrocities committed against them. Demanding a confession to the crime, official representatives of the Russian state cut off one’s ear, gouged out an eye of another, and beat the third to such an extent that he fell into a coma and was brought to the courtroom on a stretcher and a wheelchair.

Russian forces no stranger to serious torture

Cruel treatment of detainees is the norm in Russia. It was a surprise only for those, who, for example, did not know about the horrors of the last two wars in the North Caucasus or forgot about them. Trying to suppress the partisan movement and deprive it of its social base, Russian security forces practiced mass and unmotivated detentions of the local population. Mostly mature men, but often women with children. Nothing is known about the further fate of thousands of them. Today they are listed as missing. The bodies of others have been found continuously for many years on the outskirts of populated areas in Chechnya and in neighbouring Russian regions, in forest belts and in the ruins of houses, on roadsides and riverbeds. They were buried in the cemeteries of nearby settlements in unmarked graves, since due to cruel torture it was often impossible to visually determine who they were, or where they came from.

Employees of human rights organisations tried to describe the corpses for possible identification in the future. This material has been collected and is now stored in the electronic database of the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Centre, operating by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

After the Chechen wars it was extremely rare to find a corpse without signs of torture or humiliation. Many were missing limbs – arms, legs, or just fingers. Moreover, they were cut off while they were still alive, as evidenced by holes from control shots in the heart and head. They were shot to make sure they did not survive. Even though it is almost impossible to survive such torture. People had to die, but slowly and often for the enjoyment of their torturers.

Among the corpses abandoned by Russian security forces, decapitated bodies were often found. Severed heads were also discovered. One was even boiled in a bucket, which the Russian military later abandoned at the site of their previous deployment. This case became one of the most sensational of the war, spreading throughout the republic and beyond. Complex forensic medical procedures would have been needed to identify the owner of the head, but in today’s Russia no such investigations are allowed.

The torture described in the archives of human rights organisations is as varied as it is widespread – the use of high voltage electricity, cutting off genitals, tearing out eyes and peeling skin from various parts of the body, scalping, infliction of multiple knife wounds or cutting of throats. The pervasive brutality suggests the existence of a systematic approach within the Russian security apparatus. It appears that authorities not only permitted but possibly even issued directives from higher up, detailing methods of torture designed to instill fear in civilians and compel them to withdraw support from combatants. Cutting off ears, as was done to one of the participants in the attack on Krokus City Hall, is thus not the worst form of torture one can be subjected to.

The story of a schoolteacher

The case of schoolteacher Alaudi Sadykov is indicative of this system. Immediately after the occupation of Grozny by Russian troops, he got a job at the Ministry of Emergency Situations. His task included searching for and burying the remains of those killed during the fighting in the city, as well as providing assistance to survivors. On March 5, 2000, while he was distributing drinking water to residents of his area, Russian security forces approached him. They asked to show them the way, claiming they were lost, and when Alaudi Sadykov got into their car, intending to help them, they threw a bag over his head. The car drove towards the Oktyabrsky Department of Internal Affairs, which at that time was not controlled by Chechens.

Alaudi Sadykov was thrown into a cell. The people who kidnapped him did not know his name – they did not check his documents and did not even remember to ask him. They did not, however, forget to beat him. From the very first minute of being in the department building, they began their torture. At first, he was subjected to psychological forms of torture, but soon they switched to physical torture. In his complaints to law enforcement agencies in the years following his release, he listed them mechanically and without emotion: First, they cut off his hair and forced him to chew and swallow it. Then, they heated a nail on the fire and burned his hands, nostrils, lips, and tongue with it. On the very first day, the word “chichik” was carved into his forehead – a derogatory term for “Chechen”. They took him to the basement and placed him near a wall, which they called “the execution site”, where the Russian police carried out a mock execution.

It is impossible to list all the forms of torment that Alaudi Sadykov was forced to go through in the building of the Oktyabrsky police department. There are even a lot of things he himself does not remember. More than once he lost consciousness, and when he was not completely unconscious, he remained in a state of derangement, losing track, and not understanding where he was and what they wanted from him. His teeth were knocked out, his jaw was broken in two places and his arm and leg were fractured.

But he remembered well that in one of the cells where he was taken to be beaten, there was a shovel, an axe, scissors, and a sledgehammer. These objects were used as torture devices. During his time in the police department, which lasted almost two months, he saw many people there whose fingers were cut off, whose limbs were broken during beatings, who were burned and tortured with fire and electricity. Almost everyone was returned to their cells in an unconscious, half-dead state. Some of those he met in the basements of the Oktyabrsky police department disappeared. Perhaps they did not survive the torture and died, or they were deliberately killed. Their corpses probably still lie in secret graves, which the Russian security forces dug in the region to hide their atrocities. It may also be that they were found, could not be identified, and were buried in unmarked graves in local cemeteries.

Alaudi Sadykov himself was lucky. On March 11, masked police officers came into his cell and started beating him again. When he fell, one of them put his foot on his head, took out a knife and cut off his ear. The other officer was documenting the whole mutilation process with his camera.

The sadist in uniform was later identified. He turned out to be the deputy head of the Oktyabrsky police department. The name of the photographer was also made known. All this happened thanks to the pro-Moscow mayor of Grozny. His subordinate was accidentally detained, ended up in the basement of the police department and witnessed a terrible execution. Once freed, he told his supervisor about this, who then told reporters. By then, it was too late to kill Alaudi Sadykov.

With the help of human rights activists, Sadykov tried to hold the police officers who abused him accountable. But the Russian law enforcement system remained deaf to his requests and appeals. As a result, he filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling in the case “Sadykov v. Russia” was issued in October 2010. The European Court found the Russian state responsible for violating the rights of this person under several articles and awarded him a monetary compensation.

The practise of cutting ears

The Russian journalist Alexandr Nevzorov was the first who publicly spoke about the existing practice of cutting ears off killed and living Chechens. This happened back in 1996, in the second year of the first Russian-Chechen war. In an absolutely deceitful report, full of pathos and imperial arrogance, he tried to glorify the special forces who allegedly captured the Chechen “impregnable fortress of Bamut”, and at the end he showed a collection of severed ears in close-up.

The report caused a storm of criticism from the democratically minded public. Subsequently, Alexandr Nevzorov tried to disown his own work, saying that it was staged. In those days, before the rule of Putin, Russia still tried to demonstrate some level of outward decency. But now, so many years later, both the country itself and its political system have reached a level of total degradation. A system where photographs and videos of law enforcement officers – cutting the ear of a detained person – can be shown without hesitation on the main television channels, and the crime weapon can be sold in an open online auction as some kind of valuable and rare artefact.

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Lene Wetteland

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