Ingushetia / Chechnya: Brutal reprisals against civilians
On 11-12 February 2010 a security operation was conducted in the heavily forested area on the borders of the Chechen Republic and the Republic of Ingushetia in the neighbourhood of the Ingush villages of Arshty and Dattykh. The security forces have claimed that as a result of the operation a large illegal armed group had been destroyed, while denying that there had been any victims among the civilian population.
At the same time, already on 12 February, information had been received from the area that in the course of the security operation many civilians had been killed. On 13 February staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre visited the village of Arshty. On 14 February in the Achkhoi-Martan district of Chechnya staff of Memorial and Human Rights Watch questioned several dozen witnesses of the events. It can be stated with certainty that a large number of civilians was present in the area where the security operation took place. At least four of them were killed.
Human rights defenders have been able to find out the circumstances of their deaths (photographs can be viewed on the site of the Memorial Human Rights Centre).
A Fatal Journey to Gather Wild Leek.
Details of the “accidental” death of civilians during a security operation
Early in the morning of 11 February it was announced that an anti-terrorist operation would be conducted in the area around the villages of Arshty and Dattykh, Sunzhensky district, Ingushetia. The decision to conduct the operation was made by the Operational Headquarters of the Republic of Ingushetia.
According to official reports, between the villages Arshty and Dattykh a large number of members of illegal armed groups had been found. Throughout the day, gunfire was heard in the area and rocket attacks were launched into the forests from the air. The firing ceased as dusk fell, but was renewed with the dawn on 12 February.
During these two days there was conflicting information about the number of members of illegal armed groups blocked in the district and the size of their losses. According to figures given by various official sources, it was estimated there were from 15 to 25 members of armed groups. After the first day of the security operation there was talk of 10 or 11 killed; but the night of 12 February the number of dead rose to about twenty. The President of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who visited the area of the security operation on 12 February, stated that 18 members of illegal armed groups had been killed. According to the Prosecutor of Ingushetia, Yury Turygin, among the bodies identified were those of Israilov, a “former personal bodyguard of the leader of the armed underground Doku Umarov,” from Argun; Dzeitov, a “leader of the illegal armed group in Sunzhensky district,” from Bamut; Isa Ferzauli, who was “on a wanted list;” Beslan Khatsiev; Beslan Makhauri, Shamil Gadamauri; and Khasmagomed Sultygov, a resident of Ordzhonikidze village.
However, already on 12 February there were reports that among the dead in the area of the security operation there could have been civilians from the surrounding villages who had been gathering wild leek in the forest.
Later the press secretary of the President of the Republic of Ingushetia, Kaloi Akhilgov, confirmed the evidence of civilian casualties. In an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station he said: "About 70 local residents who had been gathering wild leek had been removed from the area of the security operation...Unfortunately four of them came under fire and were killed. These victims are not included in the number of 18 members of illegal armed groups who were killed during the special operation." In an interview with RIA Novosti President Yevkurov said the same.
Staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre visited the village of Arshty on 13 February in the afternoon to investigate the circumstances of the deaths. They interviewed a number of local residents who told them that no one from their village had suffered in the course of the security operation, but people from the Achkhoi-Martan district of Chechnya had been killed, including children.
In the south-eastern outskirts of the village of Arshty, Memorial staff saw seven bodies of adults, six of which had been packed in sleeping bags. It is possible that these were bodies of those identified as members of illegal armed groups.
On 14 February, staff from Memorial and Human Rights Watch worked in the Achkhoi-Martan district of Chechnya. They interviewed several dozen people, including relatives of those who had been killed, and one witness of the tragedy who had miraculously survived. This enabled the circumstances of the loss of life to be clarified, and to answer the question why these people were in the area of the security operation.
During 10-11 February, a large group of residents from Achkhoy-Martan and nearby villages (about 200 people in all) travelled on buses and goods vehicles to the forested area on the border with Ingushetia to gather wild leek (gathering wild leek is a traditional source of seasonal income, primarily for poor families; wild leek is gathered in the forests from February to the middle of March). Residents had received in advance from the head of the Achkhoi-Martan district administration permission in writing, which secured free passage for the people and their vehicles to travel to the area to gather wild leek. Relatives of those killed showed the human rights defenders lists of names on an official stamped document given by the district administration.
Representatives of Memorial and Human Rights Watch established the circumstances of the deaths of civilians from Achkhoi-Martan district
On 11 February Shamil Kataev (born 1991, of Sadovaya St., Orekhovo (Yandi-Kotar), Achkhoi-Martan district) went to gather wild leek together with his friend Movsar Tataev (born 1988, of 20, Shchorsa St., Achkhoi-Martan) and two more residents of Achkhoi-Martan – the brothers Arbi Mutaev (born 1990) and Adlan Mutaev (born 1993).
As Adlan Mutaev, who survived the security operation and was then in Achkhoi-Martan hospital, told the human rights defenders, about three o’clock in the afternoon on 11 February, all four men were making their way towards the exit from the forest with sacks full of wild leek when suddenly they were fired at by automatic weapons from behind a hillock. Shamil Kataev and Movsar Tataev were wounded. The Mutaev brothers tried to escape. 16-year-old Adlan was wounded in the leg, but was able to hide in a pit, and the soldiers who came up did not notice him. For two days Adlan hid from the soldiers, going into a deep ditch, where there was a spring and a small stream. Then, despite the gunshot wound and his frostbitten limbs, began to make his own way out of the forest. Local residents found him not far from the edge of the forest.
Arbi Mutaev also tried to hide, but was seized by soldiers – armed men of a Slavonic appearance in camouflage. According to local residents, the soldiers at gunpoint ordered Arbi to pull along his still-living comrades. Shamil asked the soldiers not to kill him. When Arbi could no longer lift up his friends, the soldiers pulled his hat over his eyes, and there was the sound of shots being fired. The soldiers left the corpses lying in the snow. They took Arbi Mutaev with them, leading him around the forest, half naked, and humiliated him. Arbi was released only on the second day.
For two days no one was allowed to enter the forests around the village of Arshty, the dead and the wounded were not taken out. At last, on 13 February the residents of Achkhoi-Martan, whose relatives had not returned home from gathering wild leek, reached an agreement with the law enforcement officers to allow them into the area of the security operation. They searched the forest and found the bodies of four men who had been killed: Shamil Kataev, Movsar Tataev, Ramzan Susaev (born 1969), and Movsar Dakhaev (born 1992).
The body Shamil Kataev had multiple gunshot wounds, with a bullet hole in his forehead (see photos from Memorial). From the pockets of Kataev’s coat his passport, mobile phone and permission to collect wild leek had disappeared. Shamil Kataev had gone to gather wild leek to make some money so as to be able to connect his home, where he lived in extreme poverty with his father and four brothers and sisters (the youngest of whom is 10 months old), to the electricity supply. On the body of Movsar Tataev, Shamil’s friend, were three gunshot wounds and several knife wounds, including on his back and in the groin area (human rights defenders were given a video of the body, made before the ritual cleansing). Both were buried in Achkhoi-Martan by the relatives of Tataev, since the Kataev family lacked the funds for a funeral.
Ramzan Susaev, according to his relatives, was shot in the chest. Also his “entire left side had been shot through, his back and been torn apart and his left hand broken, on his right side there were also gunshot wounds.”
On 13 February the elder brother of Susaev, together with fifteen other villagers, went in search of Susaev. He found the body in the forest and brought it home, together with a sack full of wild leek that had lain beside him, and tied to the bag a hoe for digging up leeks. The bag was shown to the human rights defenders (see photo). According to relatives, in the period before the funeral was held, people from the Prosecutor’s Office kept coming to see him, examining the body and taking photographs.
Movsar Dakhaev (born 1992, of 36, Mamakaev St., Achkhoy-Martan) was killed by three shots in the back. Relatives said that "it was the first time Movsar had gone to gather wild leek, to enjoy the company of the others. He wanted to go, he asked his mother to let him go. In the morning, as they reached the forest, he took his own photograph with his phone, we’ve kept it (see photo). The soldiers explained that the guys had got where the members of the illegal armed groups had been, and were hit by accident, but none of us knew that there was a security operation going on there, they did not warn anyone.” At the same time, the head of administration of Achkhoi-Martan district has said that the residents were told about the security operation in the forest area.
The human rights defenders in total questioned several dozen residents of Achkhoi-Martan, including the relatives of those killed, and also a number of those who had been gathering wild leek. These all reported that no one had warned them about any security operation in the forests, and that they had passed all the checkpoints without hindrance, right up to the forest area. Moreover, those who went to gather wild leek have said that until the moment when the soldiers began to shoot at them, they had not heard any sounds of gunfire. The soldiers opened fire on them unexpectedly at close range – as in an ambush, point blank.
From the words of the residents questioned it became clear that one other resident of the village, Mair-Ali Vakhaev (born 1965), had not yet returned from gathering wild leek. His body has not been found; nothing is known of his fate.
Kaloi Akhilgov reported that as of 15 February there had been no reports from residents of the Republic of Ingushetia about the death or disappearance of relatives in the area of the “security operation.” At the same time, the residents of Achkhoi-Martan district in Chechnya have made statements about six people who have not returned from the forest to the district administration.
It is possible that the list of victims is incomplete. The evidence gathered by Memorial is not exhaustive. However, it can already be stated with confidence that the people in the forest were not killed as a result of errors by artillery or helicopters. Nor has there been any confirmation that “members of illegal armed groups used them as living shields” (RIA Novosti was told this kind of information by a representative of the Operational Headquarters for Ingushetia). The evidence gathered, the statements by the witnesses who survived, the character of the gunshot and knife wounds, allow it to be asserted that those killed were shot at point blank range and, possibly, finished off by their killers.
It is necessary to investigate both the murders themselves, and the reason why hundreds of people happened to be in an area of mortal danger.
Human rights defenders continue to investigate the events of 11-12 February.
15 February 2010