MOSCOW — Human rights activists have been sounding the alarm for years about horrific cases of abduction, torture, and disappearances in Chechnya. But little has been said about these allegations on Russia’s heavily state-controlled national television channels.
However, on October 30, viewers of the NTV network in the country’s eastern regions were able to see a hard-hitting 10-minute report on a seemingly forbidden topic.
It included a description of Chechnya that stated that “it seems that just recently the very name of this Russian region was associated with the word ‘war’ and provoked elemental terror.”
Then it continued: “But now it would seem that they are building roads, erecting skyscrapers, and holding extravagant City Day celebrations. But does this external prosperity really indicate that all is well?”
It went on to openly accuse the Chechen Interior Ministry and other government agencies of kidnapping Chechen citizens, torturing them, holding them incommunicado for months, and “disappearing” them.
WATCH: The report that NTV pulled off the air on October 30 (IN RUSSIAN):
After the program aired in several eastern-Russian time zones, it was ordered pulled from the air by NTV’s Moscow office, and viewers in the populous European part of the country could not see it. They instead were treated to images of dancers marking the reopening of the newly renovated Bolshoi Theater.
Journalist Andrei Loshak, who sometimes does freelance work for the network, was quoted by Reuters as saying that “after it aired, someone from the Kremlin called — as is usually the case.”
But NTV press spokeswoman Maria Bezborodova told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the program was not pulled at the request of the Kremlin.
“Yes, the report was shown in the Far East, after which the network’s management decided to send it back for further work, for confirmation and clarification of facts,” Bezborodova said. “In general, this is a normal practice in the work of an editorial office that is an official registered mass-media outlet.”
Regardless of why it was pulled, the report was shockingly candid by the standards of Russian television. It focused on the case of 26-year-old Islam Umarpashayev, who says that he was kidnapped and held at a Chechen Interior Ministry base for nearly four months, during which he was brutally tortured and told that he would be killed. Umarpashayev is now in hiding in central Russia and has turned to rights organizations to help him sue the Chechen government for damages.
“We aren’t just talking about the kidnappings of people in Chechnya or about the kidnapping of people by the security forces or about the illegal methods of investigation but, essentially, about the falsification of the struggle against terrorism,” Cherkasov says.
He cites testimony by Umarpashayev in which the young man claimed he was “kidnapped, held for several months at an Interior Ministry base, and there he was fed and allowed to wash but he was not allowed to shave or cut his hair.”
“That is — as we know from many other episodes, after a few months any person who is held God-knows-where might turn up as a dead terrorist in a forest,” Cherkasov says. “It really is convenient.”
Cherkasov also believes the Kremlin ordered NTV, which is owned by state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, to kill the story.
“For two weeks NTV didn’t put the piece on the air. They promised to, but they didn’t,” Cherkasov says. “The two preceding Sundays it was supposed to appear on the same program, ‘Central Television,’ but it didn’t, because they didn’t want to release it without a comment from [Chechen President] Ramzan Kadyrov. But Kadyrov refused. So the channel overcame its own internal concerns and issued the story.”
Cherkasov says that after it aired in the Far East his group learned that “there was a call from somewhere above, either from Stary Ploshchad [where the offices of the presidential administration are located] or from the Kremlin ordering them to remove it.”
“That is the secret of how Chechnya has become practically the best-looking part of the country as reflected in the mirror of the Russian media,” Cherkasov says.
For years, Moscow has relied on the heavy hand of Kadyrov to maintain order in the republic, which has seen two separatist wars since 1994. But rights activists say that Kadyrov and forces loyal to him regularly engage in human rights abuses and act with impunity throughout the North Caucasus region.