Tayita Kayimova and her two sons share a cramped, one-room apartment, but she rarely permits the young men, who are both of military age, to go outside.
Since fleeing the war-torn mountains of their native Chechnya for a Moscow suburb a year ago, they have encountered danger of a new sort. "My sons go out, they get arrested because they lack the right documents," says the gray-haired Ms. Kayimova. "We cannot get permission to live in Moscow, but we have nowhere else to go," Kayimova says. "I feel completely trapped."
She is one of dozens of Chechens, mostly women, seeking help because they face official procedures that essentially treat every Chechen as a potential terrorist.
"The biggest problem is that Chechens are often denied Moscow registration, which makes their presence here effectively illegal," says Svetlana Chuvilova, who runs a telephone hotline for Civil Assistance, a Moscow human rights group that provides legal advice and food aid to refugees. Ms. Chuvilova says she receives about 100 registration-related complaints each week, which she passes on to Moscow authorities. "But little is done, nothing changes," she says.
Russia's Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to move freely and choose their place of residence. But many cities, including Moscow, maintain a registration system that requires even short-term visitors to pay a fee and provide full information on their living arrangements in return for a "permission" stamp in their internal passports.
Police have the right to arrest anyone who lacks the stamp. Widespread abuses, including refusals by officials to register darker-skinned Caucasians and other suspect ethnic groups, and sometimes police brutality, have been alleged for years.
Tight controls after bombings
But since a wave of apartment bombings - which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen rebels - killed 300 Russians last year, the situation of Moscow's estimated 100,000 Chechen residents has become dire. Moscow's populist Mayor Yuri Luzhkov last year decreed that all Chechens over the age of 14 must "reregister." Many Chechens complain the procedure, which involves fingerprinting, mug shots, and interrogation, is onerous and humiliating.
Lack of cooperation can result in withdrawal of all municipal services, including schooling. The process must be repeated for the entire family if it takes in houseguests, such as refugees from ongoing fighting in Chechnya.
"Even Chechens who have lived in Moscow for decades are viewed as a kind of fifth column within our Russian community, and treated as such," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, a spokesman for Human Rights, an independent Moscow-based monitoring group. "It leads to an inhuman paradox, in which we bomb the Chechens to teach them they must remain in Russia, and then persecute them when they flee to Moscow seeking the protections of Russian citizenship."
It is also illegal, say some lawyers. In 1996, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled that "registration" must involve nothing more than a citizen voluntarily informing authorities of his chosen place of residence. "Instead we see an obligatory registration system being enforced in Moscow, and absolutely unacceptable measures being applied against Chechens," says Yelena Dorovskikh, a leading constitutional expert with the official Institute of State and Law in Moscow. "I must stress that this is not a problem with Russian law, but with its implementation."
Moscow authorities say the tough registration is needed to weed out criminals and potential terrorists. "This system aids police in carrying out criminal investigations, checking the backgrounds of migrants who come into Moscow, and ensuring general order," says Vladimir Zubkov, deputy head of the Moscow police force's information department. "It is for the benefit of all law-abiding people."
Last week, Georgi Poltavchenko, the presidentially-appointed governor-general for the zone that includes Moscow, weighed in with Kremlin support. "Abolition of the registration system would violate the human rights of the 8.5 million Muscovites who built this city," he told a press conference.
Albina Simonova, a lawyer for Civil Assistance, believes justice will eventually be won in the courts. Next week, she will bring the case of Vahid Mimbulatov, a Moscow Chechen who refused to submit to police fingerprinting, then found his two children barred from enrolling in school.
Police word vs. defendant's
"The main problem in these cases is that police never provide written records of their actions, so it's always their word against a Chechen defendant," says Ms. Simonova. "I wish more Chechens would come forward."
Abdullah Khamzayev, a Chechen lawyer and 40-year resident of Moscow, says it's not surprising that most Chechens have little faith in the system. "Even I am afraid of the state, so imagine how people who are fleeing the bombings in Chechnya must feel."
Mr. Khamzayev, a justice ministry official in Soviet times, says his worst experience came after a bomb exploded in Pushkin Square in August, killing 16 people. A few days later, three burly plainclothes officers came to his door demanding to be let in for a "security check." Since they showed no warrant, he phoned the district police chief, a longtime friend.
"The police chief came and told them, 'Mr. Khamzayev is a very respected man in this community.' They answered, 'He may be respected here, but perhaps he's a completely different person on Pushkin Square.' He says the men eventually went away and didn't return.
Police investigators now believe the blast may have been the result of a gang war between Russian mafia groups.
"I will not say that Russia is a bad or uncivilized place," Khamzayev says. "But these abuses are poisoning the country.... The sad fact is that some people working in the police here know less about the law than I, a Muslim, know about Catholic Church theology."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society