“The state has a guilty conscience: they know what they did to my son and they want me to keep quiet”

Svetlana Issàieva

Founder of the NGO Mothers of Dagestan

Svetlana Isaeva, Mothers of Dagestan founder.
Svetlana Isaeva, Mothers of Dagestan founder. Author: David Forniès
Svetlana Isaeva hasn't seen her youngest son since 2007. One day, the security forces took Isa Isaiev from his home and his mother hasn't heard anything about him since, despite going to every possible state institution, both in Dagestan – the Caucasian republic where she lives – as well as Moscow. Hers isn't a unique case; other families are going through similar situations. Issaieva founded the institution Mothers of Dagestan in order to denounce the violations of human rights in that region of the Caucases; not just forced disappearances, but also extra-judicial executions, torture, abductions and violence against women. Isaeva is in Barcelona in order to talk about these forced disappearances in a ceremony hosted by the Lliga dels Drets dels Pobles.

Nationalia: In a previous interview you talked about how difficult it is to manage the Republic of Dagestan, with all of its diversity.

Svetlana Issaieva: In Dagestan we have over 30 indigenous nationalities, and that's not counting those who have moved here. I am Dargin, for example. The Dagestan government is run on a system by which the leaders distribute the control of the economic industries – gas, petroleum, refineries, whatever – as well as the ministries and state bodies, according to ethnic quotas: the Avars are responsible for a sector, the Laks another, the same for the Dargins, the Kumiks, etc. This, of course, only occurs with the biggest groups. The small groups don't get anything.

The whole structure of the republic is very clientelistic, including families and clans. The positions of responsibility are often given out according to family ties. If I hold a post and a relative asks me for a job, I can't turn them away. It was already like this during the Soviet era. And now it's become worse.

N: This system has a huge social impact. It organises society in a certain way.

S.I.: Take my son for example. He has finished studying Economics, with good marks. But he won't be able to find a good job unless he's related to someone in a good position, whether in a private company or a political post. And this also works on other levels, and not only for acquiring things, but for being blocked. Four years ago I tried to start a website for Mothers of Dagestan. I needed 600 euros and I went to ask for a loan at the bank. The first one said no, the second one too, and the third one, and from the fourth I got the same result. The man at the fourth bank was someone I knew and I asked him, in confidence, why they were all denying me credit which, in normal conditions, I could return in just half a year. He confessed that I was on a list of persons who were not allowed to receive credit. It's a government list of personae non gratae.

N: It's not the only list denounced by organisations. Annual reports like those from Human Rights Watch claim that the government has lists of Salafis, whether they're implicated in criminal activities or not, and it monitors them. Is this true?

S.I.: In Dagestan, the Sufi mosques – the form of Islam traditionally practised in the country – are connected to the government. But there are people who go to other mosques, the wrong types of mosques, Salafi mosques.

And 95% of the people who go there are on monitored lists. Often after Friday prayers, police vans will pull up to the doors of these mosques and arrest the followers and take them to the station. They take their finger prints, take photos, record their voice and how they walk and they will take DNA samples. If anyone resists, they threaten them: “Remember you have siblings, mothers… and they could have problems”. The only way to get off these lists is to pay.

N: Which police are you referring to? And why do they want these peoples' information?

S.I.: It's the police from the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Dagestan, but they are following direct orders from Moscow.

With all this information they can fabricate charges against whomever they want. It's very easy to incriminate anyone, whatever the facts may be, whether they really happened or not. I can explain my own experience…

N: Go ahead.

S.I.: One time they made me go to the station under the pretext that they had new information about the disappearance of my son. When I got there, they asked me if it had been a while since I had seen him, my son. At first I thought they meant my eldest son, the one who's alive. “I see him two or three times a week”, I answered. But they interrupted me: “No, the other one”. They knew perfectly well that he had disappeared and that there was a criminal case filled for his disappearance. One of the agents admitted that he had been ordered to ask me this question, that he knew that my organisation didn't actually have links to terrorism, and that I was on the list of personae non gratae. I know why I'm here; because the state has a guilty conscience regarding my case, because they know what they did to my son, and they want me to keep quiet. In any case, they told me they wanted to remove my name from the list.

N: Why?

S.I.: I began to laugh. They said that before crossing me off the list, they had to take some photos of me at the public prosecutor's office and that they would take some DNA samples. In reality, it was an excuse to interrogate me about the people close to me: “The person we're interested in is your son”, they told me. My son is one of the ones who goes to the wrong mosque.

After two days, they made an appointment with him at the station. They said that they wanted to talk to him about the former owner of the flat which he rented. “If you want to speak to him, go look for him”, he told them. So he didn't go, and who knows what would have happened if he had. But this is the opaque and convoluted way with which things work with the police.

N: How many disappearance cases is your association dealing with?

S.I.: We've just brought three cases to the European Court of Human Rights. I can't give you an exact number because it varies, and for a reason; the parents of those who have disappeared often file their complaints with us, but then retract them.

N: Why?

S.I. When someone files a complaint of disappearance or abduction with us at the association, we go to all the state institutions. There are cases in which, unofficially, the same state institutions get in contact with the families and threaten them: “If you keep making noise, you will never find your relatives”. Then the families ask us not to continue with the process because they say they would prefer to come to an agreement with the authorities to resolve the cases and to get back their disappeared or abducted family members.

The procedure is this: security force agents arrest somebody and over the course of three or four days they try to get them to sign a false confession. If they sign, they take them to court and they go to prison. If not, they kill them. I think they kill these people so that nobody will find out about the methods that the police use, the torture they carry out, the drugs they inject them with, and also to stop the victim from being able to get revenge in the future. There's the case of a young man; they dug a hole in the ground for him, sprayed it with gasoline, and they told him that he would either sign, or they would throw him in the hole with a lit match. The young man signed, but later he was able to explain what happened. When someone leaves prison and explains these things, they know that they have to escape Russia, because if not, they will be killed.

N: You said that the families end up “coming to an agreement” with the authorities. What does this “agreement” imply for recovering their abducted relatives?

S.I.: Sometimes the families end up finding out where their abducted child is and that they're refusing to sign the confession. Then the family makes a deal with the police to apply the minimum sentence, after paying a bribe. It's easier to pay than to go to court.

N: To what extent are these practices known by Dagestan society?

S.I.: I wouldn't say that Dagestanis don't know about it. But the vast majority think: “If it doesn't affect me or my family, it's better not to get involved, because I know where it could end”. Everyone knows that in Dagestan it's very difficult to achieve anything through legal means. Those who have been completely affected by the problem are always a minority and they don't have support in society. Even their relatives won't support them for fear of drawing attention to themselves. Usually it's only the closest family which mobilises: the mothers above all.

N: Another problem in Dagestan are honour crimes, and violence against women in general. Does Mothers of Dagestan deal with these types of cases too?

S.I.: Yes we do deal with them. But it is an extremely complicated topic; the majority of the victims – cases of gender violence, rapes... – they don't want to say or explain anything. There are few women who decide to take that step, and on top of that, society or the police themselves hold them ultimately responsible for what happens to them: “You must have confronted him, you would have provoked him...”, they tell them.

In these cases, the relatives try to silence it and sort it out informally so that it doesn't come to light.

N: Dagestan, like other North-Caucasian republics, suffers from the phenomenon of jihadist insurgency. Groups such as the Caucasus Emirate or the Islamic State cause numerous deaths every year, including among security forces. Russian forces have been confronting them for over a decade. In the West, however, there are analysts who believe that the authorities, whether Russian or Dagestani, are happy about the conflict with the insurgents because it serves as an excuse to perpetuate this form of functioning which you describe. Do you think that it really is like that or that the counterinsurgency forces are sincere in stopping these groups?

S.I.: If they really wanted to end the terrorism, one of the things they would do is to attack the financing of the terrorist groups. And of other armed groups. There are high level public officials who pay different armed groups for their safety, a type of revolutionary tax. This is illegal. And what's more, they're paying with public money.

N: But this sounds more like the mafia. What does it have to do with insurgent groups?

S.I.: It's that sometimes, the insurgent groups also work like criminal networks and also use these types of methods. There are also businessmen who pay the jihadist groups for protection.

Our republic has a small population, but at the same time we have a lot of security forces. How is it possible that they are able to follow every move I make, but are unable to follow the movements of the jihadists? Because they're not interested.

Translation from Catalan by Alex Berry.