Grozny, Russia — Oleg D. Masayev nervously fingered a cellphone as if working a string of prayer beads, his large blue eyes darting back and forth. He wanted to talk, he said, about his brother, who had disappeared without a trace or explanation, as if simply carried away by one of the dust devils that twirl along Chechnya’s roads.
“He was our youngest brother,” Mr. Masayev said. “He was the one we loved the most.”
The vanished brother had lived in Moscow and had little opportunity to become entangled in the separatist violence in Chechnya; he had, however, offered a chilling firsthand account as a victim of official abuse.
The wars that have ravaged Chechnya since the collapse of the Soviet Union have officially ended. Grozny, the capital, has been mostly rebuilt, and stores and cafes are open.
Yet the republic is in the throes of an epidemic of kidnappings. The abduction and killing last week of Natalia Estemirova, a celebrated human rights worker, came in the context of an escalating trend of unexplained disappearances. Dragged off the sidewalks, pulled out of beds at night or grabbed from their cars, scores of people have simply vanished.
In the first six months of this year, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, where Ms. Estemirova worked, documented 74 kidnappings in Chechnya, compared with 42 for all of 2008.
Human rights groups have blamed Chechnya’s president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, and his security forces for the bulk of the disappearances, and the killing of Ms. Estemirova.
Abductions have evolved from a largely successful, if brutal, counterinsurgency tactic to a form of political repression by Mr. Kadyrov’s government, said Yekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, a researcher at Memorial. Mr. Kadyrov, she said, has been governing and settling personal vendettas using the same free hand Moscow granted him to fight the war.
“Everybody calls him a small Stalin,” she said. “He is getting rid of political rivals and independent voices.”
Both Mr. Kadyrov and Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, have denied that Mr. Kadyrov had a role in the killing of Ms. Estemirova. Memorial’s director, Oleg P. Orlov, has directly accused Mr. Kadyrov of the killing, reflecting the group’s broader analysis of the causes of the abduction epidemic in Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov said Friday he would sue Mr. Orlov for slander.
The rise in abductions in Chechnya comes even as most reported insurgent activity in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus has moved outside of Chechnya, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In 2008, for example, the small region of Ingushetia surpassed Chechnya in the number of reported acts of insurgency-related violence, with 350 episodes compared with 210 in Chechnya, according to the center. In Dagestan, another republic, ethnic strife and police corruption are fueling a low-grade insurgency.
Over all, the center reported, the number of violent acts in 2008 in the North Caucasus, with a combined population of 6.1 million, was about four times larger than in Colombia, with a population of 42 million.
Mr. Kadyrov, who was installed as president just after his 30th birthday, has never lost his rough edges as he has evolved from a field commander to a political leader. Stocky and bearded, he once showed up in a track suit for an audience at the Kremlin, and enjoyed careering around Grozny, assault rifles strewn in the back seat. He keeps a private zoo, stocked with fighting dogs and ostriches.
As he consolidated power, political opponents and critics were either forced out of the region or died.
Alu D. Alkhanov, an interim president who preceded Mr. Kadyrov, was compelled to leave Chechnya in 2007. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta who covered Chechnya, was shot in the entryway of her Moscow apartment building. Two brothers from a rival, Moscow-backed Chechen family were killed, one in his car in Moscow last year and the other in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, in April. In January, a former Chechen government insider who had publicly accused Mr. Kadyrov of torture was shot to death in Vienna.
Mr. Kadyrov has denied any role in these killings.
“All enemies of Kadyrov are mysteriously disappearing,” Ms. Sokiryanskaya, the Memorial researcher, said.
Ms. Estemirova’s death closed off a source of detailed criticism of Mr. Kadyrov for journalists and human rights groups. On Saturday, Aleksandr Cherkasov, a director of Memorial, said the group’s Grozny office would be temporarily closed because “what we have been doing involves mortal danger,” the Interfax news agency reported.
Mr. Masayev, whose brother disappeared last August, agreed to speak only about the grief his brother’s disappearance had caused the family. Memorial, the rights group, had documented the particulars of the case.
The vanished brother, Mukhamadsalakh D. Masayev, lived in Moscow through Chechnya’s two wars in the 1990s. A religious Muslim, he returned to Chechnya in 2006 hoping to work as an imam but was detained and held for four months in a parked bus on a Chechen military base. After his release, he granted an interview to Novaya Gazeta directly implicating Mr. Kadyrov in his abuse.
“One day, they took us out to the woods and cocked their assault rifles,” as if threatening them with execution, Mr. Masayev said in the interview. “Laughing, they brought us back. One day, a man with the nickname Jihad, the commander of some sort of battalion, beat me and yelled debasing words. Another day, the guards took us at night to a meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov put a foot forward, as if for us to lick it and ask for forgiveness.”
He said he was released after being invited to drink tea with Mr. Kadyrov.
After the publication, Mukhamadsalakh Masayev returned to Chechnya to attend a funeral against the advice of his older brother. He disappeared soon after he arrived in Chechnya. His seven children live in Moscow with relatives. “The children ask me, ‘When will Papa come home?’ ” Oleg Masayev said of his meetings with his nieces and nephews now. “And I don’t know what to say. I say, ‘He is traveling on the path of God.’ ”
New York Times, 19.07.2008