Russians and Chechens exchange their captives

Practice, now common, called `a brilliant idea' by mother of freed soldier

May 05, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When his mother heard that Sergei Leontyev, a 19-year-old draftee in the Russian army, was being held as a slave in Chechnya, she was overcome by despair.

Irina Leontyeva, a poverty-stricken woman living in a small Russian village, thought there was no way out for her son -- she could never find the thousands of dollars in ransom that bandits in the breakaway republic of Chechnya routinely demand.

Then, amazingly, salvation beckoned. A prosecutor in St. Petersburg decided that evidence was weak against a 31-year-old Chechen man who had been imprisoned for eight months awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping and extortion. So, in what has become a legally sanctioned practice, he offered to release the man if his family produced a kidnapped Russian soldier in return.

"It was a brilliant idea," says Irina Leontyeva. "Otherwise, I would never have seen my son again. They would have shot him as soon as he became disabled."

The story of Sergei Leontyev, a Russian soldier from Podlesnoye, a Volga River village, and Artur Denisultanov, the Chechen man jailed in St. Petersburg, illuminates a seamy bargain: Chechens held on criminal charges in Russia -- where an olive Chechen complexion can be enough to provoke arrest and where trials produce convictions 99 percent of the time -- are used to pay off bandits who have developed hostage-taking and slave-holding into a robust business.

But in a country with pestilential prisons, a draconian but exploitable justice system, an army indifferent to its men and a lawless territory that has been economically destroyed, this is a bargain that saves lives.

"You make such an exchange," says Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired army major, "or you pay ransom."

The alternative can be horrifying. Three British men and a New Zealander, installing a telecommunications system in Chechnya, were taken hostage recently and held for ransom. Somehow, the negotiations were botched. The men were beheaded and their heads found lined up along the roadside.

Perhaps 500 or more hostages are being held in Chechnya, which is officially part of Russia but has operated as an outlaw territory since the end of a brutal secessionist war in August 1996.

For Russians, that war has ominous parallels with Yugoslavia. Russia tried to bomb Chechnya into submission but succeeded only in destroying the country, leaving behind thousands of refugees and numerous armed bands that have turned to kidnapping as a livelihood.

Ransoms range from $2 million, paid in October for Valentin S. Vlasov, who was President Boris N. Yeltsin's representative to Chechnya, to $1,000 for poor Chechens. About half the hostages are Chechen; the other half include foreign aid workers, missionaries, journalists and, since March, a Russian general.

Sergei Leontyev's misadventures began a year ago, while he was stationed at a Russian army base in Nazran, on the Chechen border. As a first-year draftee, he was subject to the often-brutal hazing meted out by the second-year soldiers.

One evening, a group of second-year soldiers ordered Leontyev to walk into town, beg or steal money and buy them sausages and sour cream.

"The minute he went out of the gate of the unit," his mother says, "a car approached and three guys with submachine guns pushed him into the car. He was taken directly to Chechnya."

The army informed the soldier's family that he had deserted and, as far as the family could tell, made no effort to find him.

Within two days, Leontyev was sold as a slave to work on construction projects. During his months in captivity, his mother said, he was sold four times.

"He dug deep pits for oil storage," she said. "Then he was sold for the second time and started to build houses."

He was usually given one meal a day of a flat cake and a mug of tea. He was used to making do with little. In the army, he had had only barley or oatmeal to eat.

While Leontyev was toiling in slavery, Artur Denisultanov was wasting away in one of Russia's notorious pretrial prisons.

The jails have beds for only a third of the prisoners, who sleep in shifts, crammed into fetid cells that have become breeding grounds for tuberculosis, lice and other afflictions. Prisoners often spend two years or more awaiting trial.

In November, a St. Petersburg prosecutor told Abdul and Kamissa Denisultanov, who were desperately trying to free their son, that perhaps he could be exchanged for a captive Russian soldier. The St. Petersburg chapter of Soldiers' Mothers, a nationwide advocacy group, helped guide the negotiations.

"The investigator said Artur's crimes could not be proved at trial," says Ella Polyakova, a member of the St. Petersburg group. Even so, authorities weren't offering to drop the charges. His parents feared Denisultanov would spend years awaiting trial -- if he didn't die of disease first.

"Artur's mother started to look for a soldier herself," Polyakova says.

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