Oleg Khabibrakhmanov – Confronting fear

In a society overtaken by fear, the Russian NGO Committee for the Prevention of Torture pledges to continue its work in Chechnya ‘whatever happens’. Oleg Khabibrakhmanov is one of the Committee’s specialists on Chechen matters. ‘Ensuring your safety on the territory of the Chechen republic is impossible.’

Two consecutive wars in the nineteen nineties and early 21st century reduced the Chechen capital Grozny to a pile of rubble. In today’s Grozny, virtually nothing reminds of this carnage. Modern skyscrapers, residential blocks, offices and one of Europe’s largest mosques dominate the city center. But modern-day Grozny is a façade that hides the grim realities of today’s Chechnya. Invisible to the naked eye is an atmosphere of total fear that has permeated this society.

‘This is a very typical authoritarian regime,’ says human rights activist Oleg Khabibrakhmanov. He has just returned from a month long stay in Chechnya, on a mission for the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, an NGO based in Nizhny Novgorod. ‘There is an absolute fear of the people to address human rights defenders.’

The NGO was founded in 2000 as Committee Against Torture and investigates reports of torture, not only in Chechnya, but in several other Russian regions as well. Last year, the organization was marked a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice, a move clearly aimed at smearing the group’s image, and it was decided to found a new committee under another name. In the meantime, the new organization has also been dubbed ‘foreign agent’, for allegedly receiving money from abroad.

The committee members have no permanent presence in Chechnya; the committee works with mobile brigades that visit the Grozny office on a regular basis. Work in Chechnya started in 2009, following the abduction in broad daylight and subsequent murder of Natalya Estemirova, the most outspoken Chechen human rights campaigner. Work has never been easy, admits Khabibkrakhmanov. The Grozny office was torched in 2014 and ransacked in June 2015. But over the past one-and-a-half years the mood has changed for the worse, says Khabibrakhmanov, and people are afraid even to contact him and his colleagues.

‘Now there is total fear.’ It is a fear that has gradually overtaken Chechen society since the end of the last war and the establishment of Kadyrov’s absolute rule. Fear of what might happen does not deter the members of the anti-torture committee, however. They do take safety measures and do not spend nights in Grozny. ‘But ensuring your safety on the territory of the Chechen republic is impossible,’ says Khabibrakhmanov. ‘Therefore we do not think too much about that, whatever is destined to happen will happen. We simply get in the car and go.’

By Geert Groot Koerkamp