Angel of Grozny, Devils of Lithuania

The Chechen couple, Malik Gataev and Khadizhat Gataeva, were arrested by Lithuanian state security forces in mid-October 2008 in Kaunas. The second-largest city of this small Baltic state, Kaunas is home to the only museum in the world devoted to devils. The developments surrounding the arrest make one wonder whether all the devils are indeed inside the museum.

Before their arrest, the Gataevs ran two orphanages, one in Grozny, Chechnya, and one in Kaunas. Khadizhat Gataeva has featured in many writings and other works documenting the situation in Chechnya. Anna Politkovskaya wrote about her; she appears in the prize-winning documentary film “Three Rooms of Melancholia” by the Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo; and she is the central figure in the book “The Angel of Grozny” by the Norwegian journalist, Åsne Seierstad.

Khadizhat had rescued orphans from the streets of Grozny and elsewhere since the first war broke out in Chechnya. Khadizhat was raised in an orphanage herself. It was her main motivation to take care of the children abandoned by the war. Khadizhat and Malik took custody of the first children in 1996 when hostilities ceased.

Khadizhat Gataeva opened her first proper orphanage at a refugee camp in Ingushetia. The orphanage later moved to Grozny. Khadizhat’s husband, Malik, has lived in Lithuania for the last ten years. Until his arrest, he ran another orphanage there, on the outskirts of Kaunas.

Khadizhat Gataeva traveled to and from Chechnya and Lithuania. The Gataevs were able to bring some of the older children with them from Chechnya. At the time of their arrest, there were 17 children in the orphanage in Kaunas, 8 of them teenagers.

Questions about the Gataev case emerged soon after their arrest. They were charged with extortion, allegedly of their older children. But extortion is not something that Lithuania’s State Security Service (VSD) would usually bother about. The security services are normally more interested in counterintelligence and anti-terrorism.

And yet the state security police are closely involved in the Gataev case, and have been working on it together with the Office of the Kaunas Regional Prosecutor. The first private lawyer to try to represent the Gataevs was intimidated and had to abandon the case; he was told that he would lose his job if he continued working on the case.

Later on 2 March 2009, Gintautas Bukauskas, who runs a small translation agency, was detained by the Lithuanian State Security Department for 48 hours. His offices were searched before the security police took him away. It was the second time his offices had been raided. The first was in February this year, when security agents confiscated computers and all of Bukauskas’s documents. He and his wife, Edita Bukauskiene, were unable to continue to run their business.

During the searches, the Bukauskases learned why they were of such interest to the security police. It was because of their friendship with the Gataevs. Edita Bukauskiene was told that if her husband wanted to stay out of trouble, he should have nothing to do with the Gataevs. But all Gintautas Bukauskas had done was to try to get support for the orphanage and the Chechen children in it.

Court hearings in the Gataev case have been held in camera, beyond the scrutiny of the media, relatives and friends, and the Lithuanian Human Rights Monitoring Institute.

The prosecutor in charge of the case, Nimeda Oškutyte, and the VSD are now exerting pressure on the young adults of the orphanage who are considered to be victims in the case but want to provide positive testimonies in defense of their foster parents.

When one of the young adults, Denis Volkovsky, said he would provide positive evidence in person during the second hearing in the case at Kaunas City District Court on 24 February 2009, SSD agents summoned him to the SSD Kaunas office on 25 February 2009.

Denis was questioned for six hours by six or more VSD agents. During the questioning, the agents threatened to imprison him for two years for providing “wrong” evidence against his foster parents or to deport him from Lithuania to Chechnya. When he refused, he was told that the best option for him would be to leave Lithuania until the court case was over.

Denis was then taken to hospital after this “questioning”. He was diagnosed with a psychological trauma and began undergoing medical treatment. Another of the Gataevs’ former foster children, Magomed-Salakh Gabaev, also said he would testify on behalf of his foster parents.

Prosecutor Nomeda Oškutyte and two VSD employees had visited the orphanage on 13 Jan 2009, after the first court hearing in the Gataev case. The prosecutor and SSD agents asked the young adults how they had found out about the court hearing. In an attempt to intimidate them, the prosecutor vaguely threatened to detain some of the youths.

The VSD has also been putting constant pressure on the friends and supporters of the Gataev family who showed interest in their arrest and tried to help them and the children of the orphanage. Some friends and acquaintances of the Gataev family were detained for short periods and harassed by VSD agents.

The VSD and the Kaunas Regional Prosecutor’s Office also appear to have helped to sustain a slander campaign in the Lithuanian mass media where the Gataevs were presented as violators of children’s rights after their arrest and during the pre-trial investigation, thus violating their presumption of innocence.

The news portal Alfa.lt published a story right after the Gataevs’ second court hearing, on 24 February 2009, in which the judge, Almantas Lisauskas, declared that none of the victims ‐-the older children of the orphanage– had come to court, and that it was understandable that after ten years with their foster parents, the young adults are still afraid. And yet two of the Gataevs’ alleged victims were present at the hearing, and one of them said that he had come to testify in favour of his foster parents.

What does all this amount to? Lithuania is an EU member and has signed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Why the heavy-handed treatment of the Gataevs, including the denial of their right to a fair trial?

As a desperate attempt to expose the situation, Lithuanian Institute of Human Rights Monitoring has sent an open letter to the European Parliament. It calls on European parliamentarians to pay attention to the human rights violations caused by the Lithuanian Prosecutor’s Office and State Security Department, and request that the Lithuanian government account for its behaviour concerning the Gataevs.

The case is a mystery. It is impossible to understand the motives of the security services. Whose interests they are serving? Lithuanians know the same kind of methods from the past. The KGB has long been dead and buried, but it looks as if its methods are making a comeback in this EU member state.

Oksana Chelysheva

The writer is a Russian journalist based in Helsinki as part of Finnish PEN’s “Writers in Exile” programme. She met Khadizhat Gataeva for the first time in 2004 in Grozny and has since been following her work.

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