As Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia are so close to Ingushetia, details of mass abuses committed during the sweep operations in the two villages started flowing into Ingushetia immediately after the operations took place. Russian print and electronic media paid ample attention to the abuses-for the first time in months, Russian abuses in Chechnya were a media focus.195 Abuses in the villages also made the pages of European and U.S. newspapers, and correspondents for two leading Western publications visited the villages themselves.196 Local Chechen officials became involved in demands for justice.
Nazarbek Terkhoev and Vakha Arsamakov, the heads of the Assinovskaia and Sernovodsk administrations respectively, met with Stanislav Iliasov, the prime minister of Chechnya, and Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of administration of Chechnya, on Thursday, July 5 to report on the sweep operations and tender their resignations. The men reportedly declared that their positions had become meaningless as Russian troops had not informed them of the impending sweeps and had locked them in their offices. Iliasov asked the two men to stay in their posts. In subsequent days, the heads of the Sunzha and Achkhoi-Martan districts also announced they would resign.197
On July 8, Akhmad Kadyrov inspected the villages. The following day, he made extraordinarily harsh public statements for a Russian appointee. He noted, for example: "The counter-terrorist operation is now directed against the peaceful population, not the bandits.... Our efforts to help stability and create conditions for the return of refugees have been thwarted by ill-conceived and criminal actions."198 Kadyrov accused soldiers of beating and robbing civilians. Ten days later, after prosecutors had detained six soldiers for excessively cruel actions, Kadyrov insisted that "generals should be held responsible too. Heads should roll here, in Moscow. Only then can we restore the people's faith."199
The pressure to expose and punish abuses in Assinovskaia and Sernovodsk did not extend to abuses during other sweeps that occurred in the same period. Abuses committed during sweeps in Alkhan-Kala, Chernoreche, and Kurchaloi district were of a similar nature and gravity; in Kurchaloi, a local administrator tendered his resignation, Akhmad Kadyrov publicly mentioned abuses there, and Memorial published the findings of its trip to the region. However, neither Russian nor Western media interviewed any victims of abuses there. The Alkhan-Kala and Chernoreche sweeps remained entirely outside of the focus of Chechen officials and the media.
The first indication of the position of the Interior Ministry on the sweeps came when Minister Boris Gryzlov responded to allegations by Chechnya's Prime Minister Stanislav Iliasov that the law had been violated during sweep operations. Gryzlov stated that sweep operations "should be conducted and they are conducted with respect to the law regulating counter-terrorist operations."200 On July 11, RIA Novosti news agency reported that senior officials of the Interior Ministry had warned other state officials not to make statements to preempt the results of the investigation into events in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia. According to the news agency, top law enforcement officials "considered and still consider" such statements "unjustified."
The Ministry of Interior denied that abuses had taken place. Other officials from the Russian military and the office of President Putin admitted abuses had taken place in the sweeps in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia but varied in their assessment of the seriousness of the abuses. There was little or no official acknowledgement of abuses during other June sweeps.
Military officials at first admitted large-scale abuses in the mid-year sweeps: On Wednesday July 11, Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, Russia's top military commander in Chechnya, told Itar-Tass news agency that his troops had committed "large-scale crimes" and "lawless acts."201 But this assessment was soon amended: later that day the general told independent television station NTV:
The general promised an investigation into the violations, the results of which would be made public. On July 14, he made another public statement about the sweeps in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia, saying he had spent the day listening to people who alleged their rights had been violated during the operation. According to the general, the majority of the residents had provided "nothing to confirm them [the allegations]." He also said the heavy-handed tactics used during the sweeps had been provoked by the civilians themselves.203
Sergei Yastrzhembskii, the Kremlin's spokesman for Chechnya, was the first official from presidential circles to comment on the sweep operations. In an indirect admission of the abuses, he told RIA Novosti news agency on July 11 that Russian troops would have to change their behavior during sweep operations in Chechen villages or stop the practice altogether. Yastrzhembskii added, referring to the June sweep operation in Alkhan-Kala, that "pinpointed operations" under the command of the FSB, such as the recent "liquidation" of Chechen field commander Baraev and his group, are much more efficient. 204
Vladimir Kalamanov visited Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia in late July. In an interview with the Russian paper Vremya Novostei (NewsTime), Kalamanov said the operations were conducted "harshly and at a very high emotional level" due to the "heinous murder of six or seven Russian soldiers."205 He said that, in his opinion, "serious errors" had been made as local officials were not involved in the sweep. He predicted that the investigation into the sweeps would be finished in the near future.
President Putin spoke about the sweeps during a press conference with foreign journalists on July 18. Struggling to control his agitation, the president responded to a question about abuses by saying that one of the main tactics of "radical fundamentalists" was to provoke federal troops to strike back at peaceful civilians. Putin continued:
A few days earlier, Putin had told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that "irregularities and abuses" are "perhaps, an inevitable consequence of the battle against terrorism." He added that when the law is "voluntarily violated, we are ready to bring those involved to justice...."207
Prosecutorial agencies opened criminal investigations into abuses committed during the sweep operations in Sernovodsk, Assinovskaia and Kurchaloi region in mid-July. In late September, investigators said they had confirmed that fifty-eight people from Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia had suffered abuses, mostly damage to property. As of this writing, the investigations were ongoing. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, no criminal investigations were opened into the sweeps in Alkhan-Kala and Chernoreche.
The procuracy's first reaction to allegations of abuses during the sweeps in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia was one of denial. On July 7, Alexander Nikitin, deputy procurator for Chechnya, told media outlets that the sweep operations in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia had been conducted "completely in accordance" with Russian legislation.208 On July 10, however, Sergei Yastrzhembskii stated that a "preliminary investigation has shown that there have been certain violations" and that a criminal investigation had been launched.209 In late July, Vladimir Kalamanov, presidential representative for human rights in Chechnya, told Interfax news agency that thirty investigators and prosecutors were working on the investigation.210
On July 16, Viktor Dakhnov, then Chechnya's procurator, stated that the investigation showed that there had only been "individual violations" during the sweeps. He said "the violations were not of a mass character and the operation was not an orgy, as some media outlets portray it."211 Other officials, however, indicated that the procuracy had received over two hundred complaints from inhabitants of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia.212 Later that week, the procuracy ordered the arrest of six servicemen for offenses ranging from kidnapping and robbery to abuse of authority.213 That same week, the commander of the federal forces in Chechnya issued a warning to the deputy commander of the federal forces who had been responsible for the sweeps and suspended from duty the deputy commanders of the interior troops and the police troops pending completion of the investigation.214
As of this writing, many details of the still ongoing investigation remained unknown. In late September, however, Chechnya procurator Vsevolod Chernov gave Interfax some limited details. He said that according to investigators:
He also said that investigators were looking into the disappearance of Zelimkhan Umkhanov and Apti Isigov.215
On October 4, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the procurator general's office detailing its findings regarding the sweep operation in Alkhan-Kala. On December 3, 2001, the procuracy of Chechnya forwarded the letter to the procuracy of the Grozny region for review on the merits.216 Khadisht Vitaeva, the wife of one of the men who was extrajudicially executed in Alkhan Kala, told Human Rights Watch that after repeatedly petitioning officials the Grozny district procuracy finally informed her in November 2001 that a criminal investigation into her husband's death had been opened. As of this writing, it was unclear what progress had been made in the investigation.217
196 Jonathan Steele of the British daily the Guardian and Patrick Tyler of the New York Times visited the villages in the immediate aftermath of the operations and each interviewed victims of torture.
207 "Putin describes Chechen abuses as `inevitable,'" Agence France Presse, July 16, 2001. See for the original, Dragosei Fabrizio and Venturini Franco, "Sul vertice G8 no detto a Berlusconi mano dura contro tutti i violenti," Corriere della Sera, July 16, 2001.
208 Reported by Radio Ekho Moskvy on July 7, 2001, www.online.sovtest.ru/news/article.html
216 Letter dated December 3, 2001 from F.V. Kolochko of the procuracy of Chechnya to Yu.P. Dmitriev of the Grozny region procuracy. Human Rights Watch received a copy of this letter on January 24, 2002.