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Journalists Tour Notorious Chechen Prison

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal officials opened the doors of the infamous “filtration” camp here to journalists Monday, displaying cells, kitchens, bathing facilities and inmates in an effort to dispute accounts of torture and other mistreatment of prisoners.

Inmates at the camp in northern Chechnya--a pretrial detention center for suspected rebel fighters in the breakaway republic--consistently told journalists that they had no complaints about either the conditions there or their treatment.

“I have been dealt with strictly according to the law. I have no grounds for complaints,” 38-year-old Abul Makhmayev said as officials looked on.

Former inmates, including four interviewed separately in different parts of Chechnya by The Times, have given detailed and consistent accounts of maltreatment at the facility, including regular beatings, overcrowding, deprivation of food and water, rape and torture.

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They also said that during inspections or visits by outsiders, many inmates were shipped to other locations, leaving only the healthy--and well scripted--behind.

“I have no complaints about the conditions here,” an inmate named Abubakar Ismailov said Monday. “While I’ve been here, I haven’t witnessed a single instance where a prisoner was maltreated.”

The Russian officials acknowledged that the prison had been spruced up in advance of the visit. They said they are speedily repairing damage done to the facility since 1991, when Chechnya declared its independence and the region began to twist out of Moscow’s control.

“Within the last two weeks, we’ve made serious attempts to straighten the place up and to make sure the confinement conditions are in line with those in the rest of Russia,” said Maj. Gen. Mikhail S. Nazarkin, who took over as director Feb. 10. “You haven’t seen what this place looked like before--and to what ends we have gone to restore it. We have done all we could.”

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Indeed, the paint on the walls was still sticky and left marks on visitors’ jackets. Pots in the camp kitchen showed no sign of wear. The prison’s hospital trailer was fully stocked with neatly stacked bandages and medicines. A fresh-looking placard listed the camp’s daily schedule, including precise times for meals, exercise and meetings with lawyers.

“Of course, no lawyers come here,” Nazarkin said. “We’d let them in, but they are simply too afraid to come to Chechnya.”

Beatings are common practice in Russian prisons, and former guards at Chernokozovo interviewed by The Times have said that they frequently and repeatedly beat the inmates. But Nazarkin dismissed such reports as “stupidities and rubbish.”

“Doctors can inspect the prisoners, and they will find no traces of violence or beatings on their bodies,” Nazarkin said. “Sometimes people even complain, accusing us of beating these rebels with kid gloves. Maybe violence was used against them at the time they were detained, but there hasn’t been a single case of it here.”

Nor did such abuses occur before he took over as director, he insisted.

Nazarkin denied that underage boys have been held in the camp, including a 13-year-old interviewed by The Times on Sunday.

“That’s simply not true,” Nazarkin said. “We had a 15-year-old once, but we let him out in two days.”

Chernokozovo is the best known of the three filtration camps where suspected rebels are held while Russian officials try to determine whether they took part in the fighting in Chechnya. In recent weeks, Russia has pushed the rebel fighters back to their mountain bases and searched recaptured territory for any rebels who might be hiding among the civilian population.

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Reports of abuses at Chernokozovo began circulating in December, when Russian troops launched a major push into rebel-held territory and started using the former Soviet prison to hold suspected rebels and their supporters.

Nazarkin said that in December, the camp held as many as 300 prisoners--three times its official capacity. The total has since dwindled to 96, he said, adding that five of the current inmates are women.

One of them, 30-year-old Polina Filippova, said she has been accused by the Russians of being a sniper.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now because everyone thinks I’m a sniper,” she said, weeping. “There’s no need to tell you how snipers are treated. . . .

“It’s true I didn’t have my passport on me. So what? Just because I don’t have my passport, it doesn’t mean I’m a sniper. All this is ridiculous. My eyesight is too poor even to drive a car.”

Many of the prisoners told similar stories--that they were detained because they had no identification. Under Russian law, suspects can be held two months while an investigation is underway, and the term can be extended up to six months on the request of a prosecutor.

Lt. Col. Nikolai Vavarin, a press officer with the Justice Ministry, said it is proper to detain undocumented people in a war zone.

“Every one of them will say that he didn’t have his passport and that’s the reason why he was detained,” Vavarin said. “Let’s be realistic. A war is going on. A man without documents is detained. Who is he? What’s on his mind? How has he turned up in a war zone? All this needs to be figured out. What if it turns out that he’s a hardened criminal, wanted by the police or even by Interpol?”

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Vavarin led a group of journalists into one cell where there were nine inmates and 10 bunks. The men, all apparently in their 20s and 30s, stood docilely in a tight group, their hands behind their backs.

When a journalist began to ask a prisoner where and how he had been detained, Vavarin took over the questioning.

“What are you accused of? Illegal possession of a weapon?” he shouted. “So what was found on you?”

“An assault rifle,” replied Lyoma Abubakarov, 26.

“And how many rounds of ammunition?” asked Vavarin, his voice rising further.

“Two hundred.”

“What were you doing with the rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition? Where did you get this rifle? You bought it. What did you buy this rifle for? To go hunting? Or fishing? Or killing Russian soldiers?”

Vavarin paused, then turned to the journalists.

“They are accused of illegal arms possession. He didn’t have the right to bear arms. Talk to anyone you want. Pick a face and ask your question.”

Vavarin accused the rebels of being behind the reports of abuses at Chernokozovo, saying they are part of a counter-propaganda campaign.

“The fighters are trying to create a favorable image of themselves in the international arena as freedom-loving [Chechen] highlanders fighting for their independence,” he said. “Now that a temporary pretrial detention center has been opened in Chernokozovo, they need to show that Russians commit atrocities, that freedom-loving highlanders are tortured and mistreated here.

“We’ve shown you everything, believe it,” he concluded. “Everything we had, we showed you. You talked to anyone you wanted.”

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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