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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalist Calls for Families to Be Protected

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya called Tuesday for international protection for 90 Chechen families who wrote a letter saying they want to be relocated from their villages because of hunger and cold, and because paratroopers based nearby kidnap them for ransom.

The letter was sent to her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, and a desire to check the villagers' allegations was what led Politkov-skaya to make her most recent trip to Chechnya.

She was detained in southern Chechnya last week after visiting the paratroopers' unit and seeing the deep pits where, according to the villagers, people were beaten and tortured until a ransom was paid.

Some ransoms were as high as two new sniper rifles, which cost up to $1,500 each at local markets, and others were a Kalashnikov assault rifle or even just $250, Politkovskaya said at a news conference Tuesday.

She said the commander of the 45th paratrooper unit took the initiative to show her the pits and told her "this is where we keep bandits, Chechens." He did not allow her to take photos.

"It was clear to me that the pits were exactly what people had told me about — I saw different small details that were described to me by those who had spent time there, including ropes hanging down," Politkovskaya said.

She said no one was in the pits when she visited the unit, stationed on the outskirts of Khatuni in the Vedeno region.

The military command later denied that paratroopers kidnapped people and kept them in pits.

But Aslambek Asla-khanov, the State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio Monday that keeping Chechen civilians in pits in the ground — makeshift jails — is a widespread practice.

"Those who manage to get out of them [the pits] confirm it," Asla-khanov said.

The Chechen families accused paratroopers of holding people in pits for ransom.

Politkovskaya, who has traveled to Chechnya many times during the last two years, was detained after leaving the paratrooper unit and held for two days. The military said she was not carrying all the necessary documents to work in the war zone.

Politkovskaya said she was lucky. With the quick involvement of the Ingushetia branch of the Memorial human rights group, the news of her detention reached Moscow and bounced back to the Chechnya authorities, who insisted she be released.

The villagers, however, are endangered, she said. "When I was interrogated in Chechnya, the investigators were interested first of all in the names of the people who had signed the letter," she said.

"I believe that international protection must be organized to supervise the safety of these families."

The letter was sent by 90 families living in three villages in the Vedeno district, including Khatuni. It also was sent to the Duma and Emergency Situations Ministry, she said.

"The text was unprecedented: Several hundred people were asking to be helped to move out of Chechnya to any place in Russia as soon as possible," Politkovskaya wrote in Monday's Novaya Gazeta. The families cited constant hunger, unbearable cold, total isolation from the outside world, lack of medical care and brutal punitive raids on their villages by the paratroopers.

Two human rights commissioners — Vladimir Kalamanov, the presidential commissioner for human rights in Chechnya, and Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights — went to Chechnya on Tuesday and both said they would try to check into Politkovskaya's allegations.

The journalist said they are likely to be misled. "They might be shown the trenches that were shown to the NTV television crew that came to shoot the site after I was arrested," Politkovskaya said.

"I saw those trenches myself, but they are different from the pits, and they are located in a different end of the military base."