Russian 'torture cell' found in Grozny cellar

One of Russia's leading human rights groups has produced what it says is documentary evidence of a secret torture and murder cell in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

According to Memorial, Russian police used the dungeon to torture and murder hundreds of people, whose corpses were later dumped across the small, mainly Muslim, republic.

The claims undermine Kremlin assurances that life in Chechnya is "getting back to normal" and directly implicate the authorities in the unlawful abduction and extrajudicial execution of civilians.

Memorial alleges that the torture cell, located in the basement of a former school for deaf children in Grozny's Oktyabrskaya district, was decommissioned only last month, when the federal Russian police unit occupying the building withdrew.

The windowless, airless cells of the dungeon have been photographed and filmed by Memorial and the organisation has collected first-hand testimony from people who say they survived being incarcerated there. The photographs show that the cells' walls are covered with graffiti scrawled by inmates revealing their names and sometimes when they were held there. At times the graffiti reflects the captives' desperate state of mind.

"Where am I, what's happening to me, am I alive or not?" reads one inscription from March this year.

In other cases it proclaims inmates' devotion to Allah or their attachment to Islamist fundamentalist ideas. "Suicide bombers deserve a place in paradise, non-believers the flames of hell," reads another.

Memorial says it collected the evidence just in time and that the building housing the cellar has since been demolished and the graffiti expunged from the walls in a crude attempt at a cover-up. What is clear is that the cellar was used to interrogate people suspected of collaborating with separatists resisting the republic's Moscow-backed government. Human rights activists allege that many of these so-called "terror suspects" are innocent civilians and that they are often punished because one of their relatives is a rebel.

Tatyana Kasatkina, Memorial's acting director, said the dungeon was not an isolated case and that at least two other similar facilities in Chechnya continue to "process" suspects.

She claimed that Memorial's discovery of the dungeon was "a piece of luck" but that its existence proves that the position in Chechnya is as grave as ever.

She said: "It [the dungeon] is an awful base of evidence. It is proof of what has been going on. People were tortured there, people were murdered there, and people who were sent there subsequently disappeared. For them there was no court. They try to tell us that Chechnya is a normal part of Russia, that things are peaceful here, and that reconstruction is taking place, but that's just not the way things are."

Ms Kasatkina argued that Chechnya's greatest problem was Russian impunity and that the only way to peace was through holding the people guilty of torture and murder to account.

The Moscow-backed Chechen authorities have categorically denied Memorial's allegations, though the republic's prosecutor, Valery Kuznetsov, is investigating. Mr Kuznetsov has already claimed that it was common knowledge that there were "temporary holding cells" beneath the building. He insists their existence was "official and not a secret object". Samples have been taken from the cells' walls for analysis and if they turn out to be human blood, Mr Kuznetsov has promised further tests. Several criminal cases involving the disappearance of people allegedly dispatched to the cells are being investigated.

Nurdi Nukhajiev, Chechnya's government-appointed representative for human rights, was sceptical about Memorial's claims.

"I am not saying that angels served there [in the cells]," he said. "I am not saying that the people [policemen] were ideal individuals. But this is 2006 and they weren't so stupid as to leave evidence of torture and murder behind."

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