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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Parents Ransom Soldier to Free Son

ST. PETERSBURG -- Kamissa and Abdul Denisultanov thought their son, locked in a Russian jail, might never see his home in Chechnya again.

For eight months, Artur Denisultanov, 31, had languished in St. Petersburg's foul, tuberculosis-ridden Kresty jail, awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping and extortion. He faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Then the prosecutor from far-off St. Petersburg called the Denisultanovs in Chechnya, with a daunting but hopeful offer. Artur Denisultanov could go free, on one condition: His parents had to ransom a kidnapped Russian soldier in Chechnya to exchange for him.

Such exchanges are encouraged by a 1997 State Duma resolution that says Russian law enforcement authorities should swap Chechens charged with crimes in Russia for Russians held captive in Chechnya. Dozens of Russians are missing in Chechnya, where kidnapping has become a lucrative racket amid the anarchy left by the 1994-96 war for independence.

The Denisultanovs immediately began negotiations with slave dealers.

"We were offered Russian soldiers for between $50,000 and $100,000," said Denisultanov's father Abdul, a small, tired-looking man. "I have never seen this kind of money in my life. It took us a few months before they agreed on $16,000 and we ransomed Leontyev."

Sergei Leontyev, 19, was abducted and taken to Chechnya in April, where he slaved, mixing clay, carrying bricks and digging pits in his masters' backyards.

Leontyev was just two months into his compulsory military service in Ingushetia, a Russian republic that borders Chechnya, when older recruits in his military barracks threatened to beat him if he didn't bring them sausage and mayonnaise from a nearby town.

As soon as Leontyev left the gate of the military base, three men with a pistol and two Kalashnikovs forced him into a car and drove him off f to Chechnya. Two days later, Leontyev was carrying bricks on a construction site.

"I was resold three or four times," Leontyev recalls. "I felt the worst when they humiliated me, because then I couldn't do anything, I just had to keep silent. I knew that if I attempted to escape, they would kill me. Sometimes, I wanted to commit suicide."

In December, some slave dealers brought him to a dirty barracks in a strange Chechen village.

"It was raining. I was told to get out of the car and get into another car. I thought that I was changing masters again," Leontyev said. "Then Kamissa kissed me and took me into her house, fed me, gave me a nice room and let me watch television. She didn't make me do any work; she explained to me why I was there."

Kamissa Denisultanov allowed Leontyev to call his mother in Saratov Oblast. Two months earlier, Irina Leontyeva had received an anonymous telephone call that left her stunned: she was told that her son was enslaved in Chechnya.

"Before that phone call, the military only told me that he had deserted the army, that he was not authorized to leave the military base, that they didn't know where he was," Leontyeva said. "But after the phone call, I pushed them, and they confirmed that he was kidnapped. Then I learned the conditions under which he would come home."

It took both families four months to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles and make the exchange legitimate. By the end of March, Deputy Prosecutor General Mikhail Katyshev finally granted Alexei

Suchkov, the St. Petersburg prosecutor in charge of Denisultanov's case, permission to exchange Denisultanov for Leontyev.

On Thursday, Denisultanov's family flew with Leontyev to St. Petersburg. On Friday, the two men hugged their mothers in the office of the St. Petersburg advocacy group, the Soldiers' Mothers Committee.

"Seryozha [Leontyev] is like my second son now," said Kamissa Denisultanova as she took turns kissing the two young men. "They are brothers now."

The "brothers" have been granted little time to enjoy each other's company, however: according to the conditions of the exchange, Denisultanov must leave for Chechnya by Wednesday.

"I will be a businessman and lead a happy life," Denisultanov said. "And when the case against me is dropped, I will come back to Russia: it's no good to live in a crime-ridden country, even if it's your own motherland."

On the day of the exchange, Leontyev was still unsure about his future.

"Let me just get back to my senses," he said, dragging nervously on a cigarette. "I still cannot believe people around me speak Russian."