Russia’s security services are running secret detention centers, in which they hold and torture terrorism suspects, according to the lawyers and relatives of a native of Kyrgyzstan who is accused of involvement in the deadly St. Petersburg metro blast on April 3.
A lawyer for Akram Azimov, who is originally from the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Jalal-Abad, told EurasiaNet.org last week that she had filed a request with prosecutors to investigate the allegations.
Similar allegations have been made in yet more detail in a report published by the Russian news website Republic. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, has yet to make a public comment on the claims, despite being queried directly.
Olga Dinze, the Moscow-based lawyer representing Akram Azimov, told EurasiaNet.org that her client was held in what she termed a “torture prison” in an unknown location from April 15 to April 19. The aim, she said, was to force her client to confess to being responsible for the St. Petersburg attack and to implicate his brother, Abror, who is also in custody facing terrorism charges.
“It was a basement location, the steps went down. They tortured him with electric shocks and submitted him to psychological pressure. He was constantly naked. ... He slept on a cement floor, they didn’t feed him. He could only go to the toilet in a 5-liter bottle full of feces,” Dinze said, citing information she said was provided to her by her client.
Dinze said Akram Azimov was taken to a room equipped with handcuffs, truncheons and electrical equipment regularly during his detention in the facility.
“They didn’t inflict any physical injuries, but the torture by electric shock was truly terrible. When they were shocking him, they made him count to 10,” she said.
In his article for Republic, journalist Ilya Rozhdestvensky wrote about six named detainees who had at various times been held in the so-called secret prisons. From the accounts provided by sources, the facility appears to be a location in southwest Moscow, he wrote.
Akram and Abror Azimov, who are ethnic Uzbeks, are among the group of alleged torture victims described by Rozhdestvensky.
The Azimovs are being represented by a husband and wife team — Olga Dinze is working for Akram, while Dmitry Dinze is taking Abror’s case. The pair have said they are filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights to get to the bottom of the matter.
The entire story of how the Azimov brothers ended up in custody in the first place remains shrouded in mystery.
Russian investigators claim that they tracked down Abror Azimov because he called the suspected perpetrator of the metro bombing, 22-year-old Akbarjon Jalilov, just prior to the attack — a detail they argue confirms complicity. Despite having identified Abror Azimov so swiftly, however, FSB agents claim to have managed to track him down as he was strolling casually near a railway underpass outside Moscow only on April 17. That was a full two weeks after the bombing.
The alternate account presented by the Dinzes is that Abror had in fact been detained as early as April 4 and that he was kept in the secret prison until April 17, the official date of his arrest. The lawyers have said in a statement that while being confined in the FSB cell, Abror Azimov was chained to an iron pipe by “unidentified employees of the special services” and beaten on the head, in the abdomen and kidneys.
The Azimov brothers’ father, Ahral, who lives in Russia, made similar claims.
“For two weeks, they tortured him in some prison. They put a bag over his head and forced him to confess to things he did not do. After torture like that, anybody would confess to anything,” Ahral Azimov said in a video appeal uploaded to the internet.
The circumstances of Akram Azimov’s detention are even harder to fully account for. There is strong anecdotal evidence that Akram, the older brother, was picked up by Kyrgyz security agents from a clinic in the southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh, where he was undergoing a minor operation on his sinus, on April 15.
The privately run Hosiyat clinic in Osh confirmed in a signed and stamped letter provided to the Azimov family that Akram was in their care until April 15. Staff at the clinic confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the letter was genuine.
Kyrgyz authorities have declined to explain how Akram, who is a Russian passport holder, ended up in Russia.
Dinze told EurasiaNet.org that Akram was flown to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on the same day of his detention in Osh but that he could not see where he was being taken in the city because he had a cap pulled over his eyes.
Some days later, the FSB released a video, which they said was filmed on April 19, showing Akram being detained in dramatic fashion as he stood at a bus stop in Moskovsky, a town a few kilometers outside the Moscow ring road. Agents are then shown looking into Akram’s fanny pack and finding a Soviet-vintage RGD-5 hand grenade. The suspect himself, however, looks pale and listless and offers no resistance to the arrest.
In addition to the statements provided by the Azimovs’ lawyers, Republic said accounts about secret detention centers were confirmed by two further unnamed sources. The website said the facilities are used exclusively by the FSB, and mainly to hold citizens of Central Asia.
One of the Azimov brothers has since recanted his claims about the torture cell, although his lawyer said this was the outcome of yet more intimidation.
“FSB operatives went to my client, Abror Azimov, and forced him to write a statement, on pain of physical reprisals against him and his relatives, foreswearing any complaints about abuse in secret prisons,” Dmitry Dinze wrote on his Facebook page.
Rozhdestvensky, who has written the only journalistic inquiry so far into the purported secret cells, struggled to get his article published in the first place. He offered it to RBK — a formerly gutsy business daily that has published numerous exposes on top Russian government officials, but which earlier this year came under more compliant management following an ownership struggle. RBK editors refused to run Rozhdestvensky’s piece as written.
Rozhdestvensky said he offered RBK the article in six separate drafts, but that each was rejected as being inappropriately formatted and that the material constituted “an attempted to justify terrorism suspects.”
The reporter said one editor at RBK returned one draft with the remark: “Do we think the terrorism suspects should have been transported in a Mercedes to a pristine room to drink Courvoisier?”
In the meantime, the hunt by Russian security agents for would-be Central Asian terrorists has been pursued aggressively since the St. Petersburg bombing.
On July 28, the FSB said its had detained another seven Central Asians on suspicion of planning more attacks in St. Petersburg, this time on the city’s railways. No details were provided about the origin of the suspects.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.