Activists say Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime uses televised confessions ‘under duress’ to hold back women’s rights, despite changes in society
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Khalimat Taramova, the 22-year-old daughter of a prominent Chechen businessman, sits demurely on a velvet sofa ornately embellished in gold. She is wearing a modest dress and a headscarf. With her on the sofa are three men dressed in suits. They are appearing on Grozny TV, the state television channel of Russia’s Chechen Republic.
Only a couple of weeks before the programme was shown on 14 June, Taramova fled her home, where she said she was subjected to violence after going against her family’s wishes. She sought help from a group of women’s rights activists, the Marem project , who let her stay in a flat owned by one of its members in the neighbouring republic of Dagestan. In a video released on social media on 6 June, she pleaded for the Chechen authorities not to come looking for her.
“I, Khalimat Ayubovna Taramova, voluntarily left home to flee from regular beatings and threats,” she said in the video. “Please do not put me on the federal wanted list and do not disclose any information about my whereabouts, as those actions will pose a threat to my life.”
Days later, the flat where she was staying was raided by more than 20 men working for the Russian police and Chechen security forces, according to Svetlana Anokhina, a journalist and activist who was present. Two activists, including Anokhina, say they were beaten and detained, and Taramova was taken back to Chechnya.
In the state TV broadcast aired four days later, she is seen smiling and laughing, while glancing continuously to someone or something off camera. She says she’s “fine”, that her family is taking good care of her, that there had never been any abuse and hinted that she had probably been drugged because she was “in a fog” and could not remember much about going to Dagestan. She is flanked by her father, Ayub Taramov, and uncle. The head of the country’s human rights council, Timur Aliyev, is the third man present.
To the uninitiated this change in message from Taramova may seem odd, but it comes as no surprise to those in the region. “There’s no doubt that Taramova was there under duress,” says Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “Those who file complaints with official authorities or speak out about abuse are routinely forced to take their allegations back and apologise on camera. This is one of the tactics used by Chechen authorities to suppress dissent.”
If a member of a family is publicly humiliated this downgrades them and their whole family
Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, director, Conflict
Forced confessions or retractions have been commonly used in Chechnya since Ramzan Kadyrov became leader in 2007, to intimidate people and spread propaganda suggesting that the republic is a utopia where there are no human rights violations. Kadyrov was appointed by Vladimir Putin, whom he idolises, and with whom he shares a certain macho style. He is often called pachchakh in Chechen, which comes from the Farsi word padishah, meaning “king”. In the past he has said that women should expect to be beaten in marriage and has supported “honour” killings. He has imposed an Islamic dress code, dictating that women should wear long dresses and headscarves.
Vanessa Kogan, director of the Justice Initiative project, said: “Forced confessions are an established tool that the Chechen regime uses to ensure conformism and make sure that Chechnya never gets bad press because they want to present it as a utopia … it’s about managing that image.”
So far, they have proved effective in Chechen society, with its emphasis on concepts of “honour”. “Family and kinship are very important,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center. “If a member of a family is publicly humiliated this downgrades them and their whole family. People ostracise you and your social status goes down.”
Public retractions have become so common over the years that there are jokes circulating on the internet about people having to do them for all manner of perceived wrongdoing, including leaving negative comments on social media about the Chechen leadership. The Caucasian Knot, an online news publication, has recorded that there have been 25 public apologies this year alone.
Now those whom the Guardian have spoken to have said these filmed retractions are being used as part of a backlash against women’s rights. Change is glacial but gender roles are starting to shift, says Sokiryanskaya. “More women are earning good money, becoming more independent,” she says. “They are getting a higher education, running businesses, becoming successful in science and art.”
As a result of these changes, some women try to escape violent situations in Chechnya when they would not have done so before, aided by a growing network of activists. The Russian LGBT Network does a lot of public work and there are Instagram pages where women ask each other for help, but many activists maintain a low profile for security concerns and because they are stigmatised.
Kogan believes the forced confessions used in circumstances such as these are achieving their intended effect of silencing women and preventing them from stepping out of line. “For those who do come forward, they are more doubtful that they can ever escape the situation. They know the reach of the regime is so wide,” she says.
Taramova is only the latest woman to try to escape a violent situation only to be dragged back to renounce claims of abuse on television.
In June last year, Madina Umaeva, 23, died in suspicious circumstances. She had previously complained to family members about her husband repeatedly beating her. Umaeva’s mother complained to authorities and stories began circulating on social media saying that Umaeva had been murdered.
The Chechen leadership became so infuriated with the reports that they filmed a meeting of both families. Kadyrov was shown on state television reprimanding Umaeva’s relatives before her mother was seen apologising to the mother-in-law and husband, saying she had no right to make any accusations of wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness.
[Women] are more doubtful that they can ever escape the situation. They know the reach of the regime is so wide
Vanessa Kogan, director, Justice Initiative
A year before, there was widespread publicity after a 20-year-old Chechen woman was lured out of a shelter in Moscow by her family and forcibly taken back to Chechnya. She had claimed her father was beating her and that her parents were trying to force her to marry against her wishes.
A video later emerged of her in a cafe in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, with her mother, saying that she had been “recruited by feminists” who had confused her and that she was glad to be back.
In 2015, there were reports of a 17-year-old girl becoming the second wife of a 57-year-old man, who was the head of a police department in Chechnya and a close associate of Kadyrov. She initially refused because she already had a fiance. The story was covered in the media and prompted outrage until Kadyrov intervened to insist the marriage should go ahead. The girl appeared on TV consenting to the marriage and then the wedding was broadcast on state television.
These cases of women attempting to fight for their rights ended in tragedy, acknowledges Sokiryanskaya. “They had a small chance, and now it’s gone. Their lives are over.”
She believes, however, that the publicity surrounding the stories is prompting discussion and raising awareness. Forced confessions have become so common that no one believes them any more, she says.
But the confessions and retractions will continue as part of the regime’s arsenal of tactics to suppress and threaten women in the face of social change.
“Every action brings a counter action,” says Janette Akhilgova, Russia and Caucasus consultant at the women’s rights organisation Equality Now. “The development of shelters, talking about women’s rights, having defenders, all makes neo-patriarchal forces act more aggressively and this is one reason why [these confessions] are happening.”
In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org