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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 23:52 GMT
Dark shadows in 'normal' Chechnya
By Artyom Liss
BBC News, Chechnya

A human rights delegation from the Council of Europe has returned from Chechnya, after a short visit to Russia's troubled republic. The BBC's Artyom Liss has been travelling with the team.

As the armoured convoy of commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles and his successor-elect Thomas Hammarberg trundled along a bumpy Chechen road, swerving to avoid deep pools of mud, all the team could see was a thick layer of milky fog.

A destroyed building in Grozny. Picture: February 2006
War scars are still visible across Grozny

Every now and then, a local feature would emerge: a bored policeman at a checkpoint, a teenager herding cows, a handwritten sign for a cafe called "Away from the wives".

These glimpses of reality painted a picture of Chechnya which Council of Europe officials had hardly seen before: of a republic which does seem to be returning to some kind of normality.

Wherever the team went, all looked squeaky clean and smelled of fresh paint.

Kremlin minders

At the Chernokozovo remand centre, loudspeakers blared out inmates' rights, and the tiny exercise pens looked as if the barbed wire above had just been washed with gallons of liquid soap.

A year ago, (Russian) President Putin said that the war was over, but no, it is not - there are still at least 20 killings or kidnappings every week
Zeynab, Chechen rights activist

Six years ago this was a very different place. Prisoners were often chained to one another and slept on a bare earth floor.

On his first visit here, Mr Gil-Robles said conditions at Chernokozovo were tantamount to torture and urged Moscow to close the facility.

But in spite of all these improvements, journalists were not allowed to talk to any of the inmates - and all our movements were tightly controlled by minders from the Kremlin.

'Disappeared'

There was much more to this trip than met the eye.

European commissioner Alvaro Gil Robles during a visit to Chechnya
Wherever Mr Gil-Robles went, all looked squeaky clean

Armoured personnel carriers were stationed, camouflaged, at key positions along our route.

Any unauthorised stop made our armed escort immediately spring into action and form a tight circle around the convoy.

At times it seemed that the zone of normality did not spread far from our armoured vans.

But while the military were there to protect us from a possible rebel attack, many Chechens say that it is the security forces, not the gunmen, who now pose a greater threat to ordinary people.

Thousands of Chechens have "disappeared" since 2000. Independent websites are full of stories about men in camouflage taking people away without any explanation whatsoever.

Officially, most of the "disappeared" are terrorism suspects. But charges are only brought in a handful of cases.

Dozens of people return home weeks after their detention, exhausted, with signs of torture on their bodies and unwilling to talk about their ordeals. Some are never seen again.

Chechen authorities have long pledged to eradicate all kidnappings - but even the republic's President Alu Alkhanov admits there is still a long way to go.

Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov is seen by many as Chechnya's de-facto ruler

"In 2001, 703 people were kidnapped. Last year, we only had 77 kidnappings," he told us in the government compound in Grozny.

"One has to be blind not to see a real positive trend. But the problem is still there; and I do think that even one such case is a terrible tragedy," he said, a picture of his assassinated predecessor Akhmad Kadyrov looking down on us from the wall of his office.

Kadyrov's son Ramzan is the man whose private security force is accused of some of the worst crimes and kidnappings.

And yet he - the de facto ruler of Chechnya - also sounded upbeat after meeting the commissioner.

"Yes, we do have some rogue elements within our forces," Ramzan Kadyrov readily admitted.

"But we do all we can to find them and then we send them to courts. They are then punished to the fullest possible extent under Russian law."

'Different Chechnya'

So for Mr Gil-Robles this was a visit which showed that his six years of work in Chechnya had born at least some fruit.

But for his successor, Mr Hammarberg, it must have been obvious that there still is a lot to do.

When Mr Gil-Robles met local heads of non-governmental organisations, their entire conversation was filmed by a Russian military cameraman.

It must have taken a lot of courage to speak out in front of this man in camouflage.

All the more because some participants were describing a very different Chechnya from the one shown to Europeans earlier.

"A year ago, (Russian) President Putin said that the war was over," Zeynab, local human rights activist, told me.

"But no, it is not. There are still at least 20 killings or kidnappings every week," he said.

An official - who was standing next to us, listening intently to the conversation - interrupted Zeynab: "You know it's not right! It's nowhere near that figure!"

But she continued, unabated.

"I don't trust the authorities any more, be they Chechen, Russian or European. All they can do is lie to us. They simply do not care," Zeynab said.

Zeynab's son vanished four years ago. She still hopes to find him one day - but how and when, she says, nobody can tell her.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
EU inspectors visit a Chechen jail



SEE ALSO:
'Climate of fear' in Chechnya
24 Feb 06 |  Europe
Russians win human rights prize
12 Jan 05 |  Europe
Timeline: Chechnya
12 Feb 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Russia
12 Feb 06 |  Country profiles


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