A 19-year-old Chechen abducted and tortured at the government’s command: the case of Salman Tepsurkaev
On September 6, 2020, Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old Chechen native, was abducted from his workplace by two men who introduced themselves as Chechen law enforcement officers. When Salman’s family tried to report an abduction to the police, they were promised that their son would be back home in a week if they kept quiet. It’s been almost a year, and Salman is still being held hostage by the Chechen authorities.
Salman Tepsurkaev lived with his parents and brother in a small Chechen village before moving to Gelendzhik to work as a waiter at a resort hotel. Along with this, he was secretly moderating the 1ADAT Telegram channel. Created in March 2020 to connect Chechen immigrants abroad, the channel gained thousands of followers in just six months. 1ADAT positions itself as a “civil movement against Ramzan Kadyrov’s dictatorship”. 1ADAT exposes government torture and repressions, gross human rights violations, mass corruption, secret prisons, and other illegal actions of Chechen officials and sheds light on social inequality in Chechnya, documenting the incredible wealth and luxurious lifestyles of Chechen officials in contrast with the unemployment, corruption, and poverty that ordinary Chechens face daily.
In May of 2020, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, appointed several journalists of the Grozny State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company to high level government jobs. Kadyrov was explicit about the mandate of these appointees— identifying and punishing his critics on the Internet. Seeing that the 1ADAT Telegram channel was one of the most influential outlets criticizing Kadyrov’s tyrant regime, the newly appointed officials immediately started the “hunt” on the channels’ activists. At their command, a few anonymous 1ADAT’s channel members sent $500 to Salman Tepsurkaev’s PayPal account under the pretext of donating. These transactions were made to identify Salman’s phone number and location. Obtaining such data would have been impossible without access to Tepsurkayev’s detailed phone billings, which are available only to law enforcement.
On September 6, 2020, two men dressed in black came to the Laguna resort hotel in Gelendzhik where Salman Tepsurkaev worked as a waiter. While one of the men guarded the front entrance, another went into the building and grabbed Salman. Salman tried to escape from the abductors, holding on to a column by the front desk and shouting “Call the police!” The hotel workers called security and tried to intervene, but one of the abductors showed them a law enforcement ID.
Salman was forced out of the hotel and his coworkers never saw him again.
For an entire day afterward, Salman’s phone was turned off and his location was unknown until it was turned back on briefly the next day. At that point, his family discovered that their son was kept at a police office in Grozny, Chechnya. That specific office is notorious for being the holding space for abducted Chechens and the location of many extrajudicial executions. Salman’s family quickly traveled to Grozny, but when they got to the location, they were told Salman was not there. The relatives tried to report the abduction to the police, but Grozny Investigative Department told the family to keep quiet and they would see their son in a week. A week later, Salman was not released.
Public Torture and Humiliation
On the day of the abduction, an anonymous member of the 1ADAT channel under the nickname “Hunter” published a video of a completely naked Chechen youth sitting on his knees with a glass bottle in front of him. In the video, a young man introduces himself as Salman Tepsurkayev, and states that he is 19 years old and is one of the administrators of 1ADAT. In a distraught and confused speech, he tries to explain what the channel is about, calling it a “dirty group”, in which the administrators “do disgusting things” that he is ashamed of. Salman also insults his mother and calls himself a bastard and a scum who was rejected by his father a long time ago. In the end, Tepsurkaev says he “punishes himself for a behavior inappropriate for a Chechen and passes the baton to other channel administrators and followers”. He then attempts to sit down on a glass bottle. His face contorts in pain and the video cuts off. In the next few days, more videos of Salman were released by anonymous users both on Telegram and Instagram. In the videos, Salman continues to criticize the Chechen opposition and keeps cursing himself. In addition, the Chechen state-controlled TV channel published a video message from Salman’s father. In which he states that he disowned his son years ago for “disobedience and terrible behavior”.
On September 8, 2020, the Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC) filed a complaint with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic, demanding an investigation of the abduction and torture of Salman Tepsurkaev.
The Chechen Republic refused to open the case citing the absence of a crime.
On September 11, 2020, lawyers of the Committee Against Torture filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the violation of Salman’s rights under Articles 3 and 5 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: “Prohibition of torture” and “The right to personal inviolability.” The ECHR lodged an inquiry with the Russian government on what measures to release Tepsurkaev are being implemented on the national level. The ECHR has not received any response from the Chechen officials.
On October 15, investigators from Gelendzhik, where Salman’s workplace is located, transferred the materials they had collected to the Chechen Investigation Department since the car of Tepsurkaev’s alleged abductors had crossed the Chechen border.
The Chechen police refused to initiate a criminal case, citing the absence of a crime.
At this time, it is unknown where Salman is located or whether he is alive.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Salman Tepsurkaev as a Political Prisoner
Involvement of the Chechen Special Services
The MHRC believes there are serious grounds to believe that the Chechen Special Services were involved in the kidnapping of Salman Tepsurkaev. Discovering Salman’s location required access to information from telecommunication networks. This information is only available to law enforcement officials associated with the Chechen Special Services. Investigation has also revealed that at least one of the two vehicles involved in the abduction belonged to a current Chechen Interior Ministry employee.
Salman Tepsurkaev is a Victim of Kadyrov’s regime
As it has been documented by numerous sources, including Novaya Gazeta and Kavkaz Uzel, psychological pressure and torture are known methods of Chechen authorities. These methods are used to punish those who criticized Ramzan Kadyrov and whose political beliefs differ from the government’s. The facility in Grozny where Salman was kept has become a place of detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions of illegally arrested residents of Chechnya.
The open approval of torture by Chechen officials
Several representatives of the Chechen top leadership including Adam Delimkhanov and Salakh Mezhiev, indirectly confirmed that they knew the identities of those behind the abduction of Tepsurkaev and had approved such actions. At the same time, the investigative authorities of the Chechen Republic refuse to investigate the abduction.
Violation of the right of freedom of expression
The MHRC asserts that although the current location of Salam Tepsurkaev is unknown, and information is lacking on the circumstances of his abduction, the MHRC considers him alive and illegally detained by Chechen officials. The MHRC claims that the video recordings with Salman’s participation were made under extreme pressure and are the result of torture. Salman’s persecution seeks to silence all public criticism of the Chechen authorities and terrorize the opposition with cruelty and public humiliation. Salman’s persecution violates his right to freedom and security, as well as freedom of expression. The Memorial Human Rights Center along with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU demand that the Russian government takes immediate action to ensure the safety of Salman Tepsurkaev and investigate the illegal actions committed against him.