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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Groups Skip Grozny Forum

ReutersWomen displaying photographs of missing loved ones outside a human rights conference in Grozny on Thursday.
GROZNY -- Major human rights groups snubbed a Moscow-sponsored rights forum in Chechnya as a sham aimed at concealing abuses by its leader, acting President Ramzan Kadyrov, but President Vladimir Putin praised him for bringing peace to the region.

Activists condemned the rights conference in Chechnya as a Kremlin attempt to lend legitimacy to Kadyrov, a Moscow-backed Chechen leader accused of allowing torture and civilian kidnappings in the region.

Only a handful of low-level officials turned out for the conference intended by Moscow to show that Chechnya was returning to peace after two decades of a bloody military conflict between government forces and insurgents.

Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, was one of the few figures of international status at the conference. In Chechnya on a fact-finding mission, he accused its leadership this week of using systematic torture in prisons.

As a group of Chechen mothers rallied in Grozny holding photos of their missing sons, Putin met Kadyrov in Moscow and praised him for his achievements.

Two dozen women rallied outside the building where the conference was taking place, holding pictures of their missing sons. Rumi Arzhiyeva, 52, burst into tears as she told how her two sons disappeared without trace three years ago. "Please help, please help," she said.

Rights activists say hostage-takings by security forces are widespread in Chechnya and torture is systematic in secret prisons and illegal detention centers. Arbitrary charges are regularly brought against innocent civilians, activists say.

They accuse Kadyrov's men of using illegal arrests and torture. Kadyrov has denied the charges.

Human rights activists said they did not see Kadyrov as a man who could bring peace to the region.

"I don't believe it's possible to improve the situation in Chechnya through contacts with Kadyrov," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group. "Human rights organizations in Moscow refused to attend the event. Kadyrov is ... responsible for kidnappings and abductions of many innocent people whose bodies are being found with signs of torture on their bodies or not found at all," she said.

Workers in Grozny on Thursday found eight human skulls and other skeletal remains while searching through rubble at a firing range, a source in the regional Interior Ministry told Interfax.

The source said the remains of five bodies had been found last week in the same area, where heavy fighting between rebels and federal forces occurred in 1996.