President Vladimir Putin gave power in Chechnya on Thursday to a widely feared pro-Russian strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, even as Europe's human rights chief warned of widespread torture and other abuses allegedly committed by Kadyrov's henchmen.
Kadyrov, the son of an assassinated Chechen president, previously served as prime minister and had been expected to seek the presidency after turning 30 in October — the minimum age for the office under local law. His nomination follows Putin's dismissal of regional President Alu Alkhanov; legislative approval was expected Friday.
More than a decade of separatist fighting has left much of Chechnya, particularly the capital Grozny, a moonscape of ruins, and Kadyrov has led a largely federally funded rebuilding campaign.
During a meeting with Kadyrov on Thursday, Putin hailed the reconstruction efforts, saying Chechnya has seen "significant positive developments." He expressed hope that Kadyrov would continue efforts to improve social and economic conditions in the region, so that "people Chechnya feel a greater security."
Russian and international rights groups have accused Kadyrov's paramilitary security forces of numerous abuses against civilians, including abductions, torture and killings. Some have speculated the October killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow may have been connected with her critical reporting of Kadyrov's administration.
Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, said he had spoken with many inmates during a visit to Chechnya this week and they told him they been mistreated and tortured during police interrogations.
Hammarberg, who attended a human rights conference Thursday in Grozny, told The Associated Press that several detainees at the pretrial detention center he visited referred specifically to Russian police in the region.
"I'm convinced that torture is practiced by law enforcement personnel during interrogations," said Hammarberg told AP. "I got the impression it is widespread."
"Measures must be taken to stop" torture in Chechnya, he said, adding that, while abductions by security forces appear to have declined dramatically, "there has been far too little progress" in clarifying the fate of people who have disappeared.
"Wherever I went I encountered people with photographs of missing relatives," Hammarberg said. "It's obviously a huge problem that's unresolved."
Opposition from prominent groups
Many prominent Russian and international rights groups boycotted the human rights conference, saying that attending would give legitimacy to Kadyrov's government.
Hammarberg said he met with Kadyrov during his visit, and the Chechen leader "listened carefully" to his concerns and agreed that serious measures must be taken to stop torture. He said, however, that Kadyrov largely placed the blame for the abuses on forces out of his control.
Kadyrov did not attend the human rights conference, instead traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin.
Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, was assassinated in May 2004, seven months after becoming president in a Kremlin-conducted election aimed at undermining the rebel movement.
Chechnya has been plagued by fighting with separatist rebels for most the past dozen years. A 20-month war ended in 1996 with the withdrawal of Russian troops after rebels fought them to a standstill, giving the province de-facto independence.
Russian forces swept back into the region in September 1999 following an incursion by Chechnya-based fighters into neighboring Dagestan and fatal apartment bombings in other parts of Russia which officials blamed on the separatists.
Major fighting in the latter campaign died down by 2001, but skirmishes still break out between rebels, federal troops and allied regional security forces.