Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov launches new crackdown on drug users
Reports follow on from last year's anti-gay purge that left dozens of young men reported missing, some feared dead
Soon after his arrest, 31-year-old Magomed-Alki Mezhidov was delivered to a police cell in Shali, in the republic of Chechnya. There, detectives put terminals on his fingertips and turned on the current. They said they would torture him until he admitted to possessing drugs. Cries of pain would not stop them. No-one had survived such questioning without eventually admitting their crime, they said.
Allegations of sadist interrogation techniques by Chechen security services are not new. Last year, the world found out about a state-led campaign of torture against gays in the region; a purge that resulted in dozens of young men reported missing, some feared dead.
But these latest details, reported by the independent Russian publication Republic, suggest the region’s erratic and all-powerful chief Ramzan Kadyrov has found himself a new target: drug users.
According to the publication, Mezhidov's arrest was one of dozens, possibly hundreds carried out in recent months, in an almost exact mirror of the anti-gay purge. This time at least, no deaths have been reported. Instead, Republic carries claims of arbitrary arrests, extreme interviewing techniques, and torture.
Mr Kadyrov has long presented himself as a warrior against drugs. His first comments on the issue came in May 2006, where he drew a straight line between drug use, Wahhabism and terrorism.
“It is one and the same thing,” he was reported as saying. “The drug user is no less of a source of evil than the terrorist, because he hooks the youth into dependence, and they are the future of our republic.”
In September 2016, Mr Kadyrov called on his security forces to kill drug users anyone who “disturbs peace in the Chechen Republic” on sight.
“Shoot them, to hell with them," he is quoted as saying. "Nothing matters - the law, no law. Shoot them, do you understand. As-salamu Alaykum! That’s law for you!”
Later, officials said his comments had been taken out of context.
According to Tanya Lokshina, chief Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch and expert on the region, the reported crackdown would not be Mr Kadyrov's first violent campaign against drug users.
“His authorities have routinely organised special operations to 'cleanse’ the region of what they consider to be undesirables,” she told The Independent. “Last year, the gay community was one of the targeted groups, but operations against suspected drug users have been going on for some time.”
In interviews given to activists and journalists, survivors of the Chechen gay purge mentioned that drug users and suspected jihadists were frequently detained and tortured in the same secret facilities.
Activists contend that a large number of those detained and tortured are simply critics of the Kadyrov regime. It is unclear how many of last year's 507 drug-related arrests fall under this category. Almost certainly, last week’s arrest of 60-year-old human rights activist Oyub Titiev is one of them. Police say they uncovered 180g of marijuana from his car; he says the drugs were planted and a confession forced out of him.
Mr Titiev is a well-known critic of the region’s irascible leader, and took over running the Chechen office of rights organisation Memorial after the 2009 murder of his colleague, Natalia Estemirova.
Chechen authorities have yet to respond to the allegations contained in the new Republic investigation.