At 8 a.m. Sunday, Iman Muradov was escorted out of the gates of the notorious prison here and became a free man--or rather, a free child. His apparent crime: being tall for his age.
Iman, who is 13, was arrested a month ago in the town of Alkhan-Yurt after it had been newly reoccupied by Russian forces fighting the separatist rebels in Chechnya. When the Russians asked the gangly teen for his documents, Iman told them he didn't have any. He won't be eligible for a passport until he turns 14 in April.
So Iman spent the following month in Russia's most infamous "filtration" camp for suspected rebels, a facility that almost no outside observers have been allowed to visit. And Sunday, he became the latest former inmate to testify to torture and other human rights abuses here.
"The guards would carry around a portable music player and turn on music when they were torturing someone, so people in the next cell wouldn't hear," Iman said.
Tortures his cellmates endured included rape, the pulling out of their fingernails and the insertion of lighted matches in their genitals. He himself went through the "helicopter ride": He was hung by his ankles outside a flying helicopter and told he would be dropped if he didn't confess to being with the rebels.
"They said no one would ever find me or figure out how I was killed," he said. "And I knew they were right."
Iman says he lost count of the number of beatings he received. He got them "every day for the first three days and on and off after that," he said. "They used truncheons so they wouldn't leave bruises. They hit me in the kidneys, my chest, my feet. But they didn't strike my face," to keep the injuries from being readily visible.
For the last several months, Russia has been on a furious offensive against the separatists in Chechnya, who have been driven back to their bases in the republic's southern mountains. But no less furious has been the campaign's aftermath in recaptured territory, as Russian soldiers prowl in search of anyone who may have helped the rebel fighters--and whom they can punish.
Russia Seeks to Disprove Claims
Tales of human rights abuses at the Chernokozovo camp have accumulated to such a degree that Russian officials have begun to take steps to counteract them. This week, they are expected to permit a number of journalists and Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, to tour the prison.
Conditions at the camp "fully correspond to legislation of the Russian Federation and generally recognized norms of international law," the Russian Justice Ministry said in a statement issued over the weekend. Media reports of abuses "do not correspond to reality and grossly distort the real state of affairs."
Russia has three filtration camps, of which Chernokozovo is the largest. Officials say they are needed to identify rebels disguised as civilians, but the Chechens say the Russians round up all men indiscriminately and use torture and other maltreatment to try to get them to confess to supporting the separatists--thereby boosting the Russians' count of captured rebels.
"Whether you are young or old, if you're a man, you're guilty," railed 50-year-old Zukhra Khasiyeva, one of several dozen Chechen women who keep a permanent vigil outside the gates of the camp. "Being Chechen is a crime."
Chernokozovo was the last confirmed whereabouts of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky before Russian officials released him at the beginning of February in a mysterious prisoner swap with alleged Chechen rebels. He spent two weeks in the camp, and his colleagues have speculated that a major motivation for the unorthodox Russian move was to try to keep him from testifying about the conditions.
Few if any of Chernokozovo's inmates have had formal charges brought against them or been allowed legal representation.
Inmates Reportedly Removed Before Visits
The women keeping vigil outside the camp gates warn that visitors who tour the prison this week are likely to see only a sanitized version of it. They assert that most of the camp's prisoners have been loaded onto rail cars in recent days and moved elsewhere.
Iman said he was similarly transferred several weeks ago before an inspection tour. He said he and the 41 inmates who shared his cell were loaded into train cars and sat on the rails for three days outside the city of Mozdok, just beyond the Chechen border.
"We were given nothing to eat for three days and almost nothing to drink--just a liter-and-a-half bottle once a day for the whole car," he said. "It was only just enough to keep us from dying like dogs."
Even former guards at the camp have acknowledged mistreating detainees. One guard, a police officer from the elite OMON forces who gave his name only as Dmitri, boasted in an interview of the rough treatment dished out to "Chekhs"--slang for Chechens.
"The thing that Chekhs fear most of all is Chernokozovo," he said in Mozdok. "When they hear this word, they turn into zombies. And rightly so--all these Chekhs know that to be sent to Chernokozovo is almost the same thing as to die. They know that in Chernokozovo we will beat them like stray dogs."
The women say that those who get out tend to be those whose relatives can pay. Zoroa Magamadova, 46, said her nephew was freed after the family paid off local law enforcement officials--the going rate is $10,000 to $15,000. She said she can't find the money to ransom her own son, Adlan Basayev, who has been in the camp since Jan. 17.
"I don't know who to turn to," she said, weeping. "Who can possibly help us?"
Interviews with four former inmates suggest similar patterns of mistreatment.
Roman Sotnikov, a 43-year-old resident of the Chechen capital, Grozny, said he was arrested Jan. 28 as he was trying to take advantage of the Russians' promise of safe passage out of the besieged city.
"Fifteen of us were kept in a van for three days without food or water," he said. "When somebody would call out for the guards to let him out to go to the toilet, they would beat him the whole time he was trying to relieve himself. But we did it anyway, not because we wanted to go to the toilet but because it gave you a chance to drink. When the soldiers started beating you, you would fall with your face down in the snow and you could eat it while they were kicking you. The snow was dirty and black with soot, but it tasted like the best thing in the world to me."
Sotnikov said he was taken to Chernokozovo and spent 22 days enduring daily beatings. He said the cries of those being beaten and tortured kept the rest of the prisoners awake all night.
Sultan Tamayev, a 40-year-old resident of Tsa-Tsoy Yurt, was detained Jan. 5 and spent 17 days in Chernokozovo. He also described being locked in a rail car for several days during an inspection visit by an unidentified commission.
The night he and the rest of the detainees returned to the camp, "we heard terrible screams from the cell next door," Tamayev said. "In it were people who had remained in the cell for the commission's visit. Some of them, it was said, complained to the commission about the terrible conditions, and now the guards were teaching them not to complain. The screams went on all night."
'They Didn't Give Me Any Water for 3 Days'
Muslim Amirkhanov, a 46-year-old bus driver from the village of Valerik, was making his rounds Jan. 11 when he was arrested along with his passengers in a suburb of Grozny and taken to Chernokozovo.
"The cell I was in was designed for four people," he said. "There were 14 of us in it. There were no beds, no mattresses, nothing except a toilet bucket. We slept on the cold concrete floor. They kept me in there for 12 days. Once they didn't give me any water for three days. Our ration consisted of one plate of gruel for three people. We were also given one spoon for three inmates."
In 12 days, he said, he was taken out for beatings five times.
In Iman's case, his youth appears not to have eased his treatment.
Iman says the cell he shared with 41 other people was designed to hold 10. One of the other inmates was a woman who was six months pregnant. There were two men over 60.
On Wednesday, Iman said, the guards put them through a particularly demeaning ritual to mark the 56th anniversary of the day Soviet dictator Josef Stalin rounded up all Chechens--an estimated 800,000 people--and shipped them in cattle cars into exile in Central Asia. For Chechens, it is a national day of mourning. In a parody of a Stalinist-era ritual, the inmates were forced to line up and one by one proclaim their "thanks to Comrade Stalin for their happy childhoods."
Iman says his ordeal in Chernokozovo didn't make him hate all Russians--at least not the "law-abiding ones."
"But as for the soldiers, I'll never in my life forget what they did to me," he said. "I hate Chernokozovo, and I hate every one of them who served here."
Special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.