CHERNOKOZOVO, Russia — 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.