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Tension Rises for Chechens Living in Russia - 2002-11-01

The Moscow theater siege heightened tensions between Russian and Chechen political leaders. But it has also had an impact on the lives of ordinary Chechens living throughout Russia.

During the hostage crisis, 39-year-old Milana was on her way to a medical clinic when she says the police stopped her, asked for her documents and took her into custody. Three hours later the police released her.

When asked why she was held and questioned, Milana says the police officers told her it was simply because she is Chechen.

Milana, who declined to give her family name for fear of retribution, is from the town of Gudermes in Chechnya. She moved to Moscow four years ago, before the war started, with her husband and son.

Since the hostage crisis, she says she has also had problems with her landlord, who no longer wants to rent to a Chechen.

Human Rights activists in Moscow say they are worried that incidents like this are becoming more common in the wake of the hostage crisis.

The head of Amnesty International, Irene Khan arrived in Moscow the day the hostage crisis ended. She says there has been an alarming increase in complaints similar to Milana's.

"I think people are afraid. The people I've spoken to are clearly afraid," Ms. Khan said. "Chechens in Moscow have reported increased visits to their homes, checks being taken.

Many Chechens living in Moscow say they are being harassed by the police. They say as police are looking for possible accomplices of the hostage-takers, they're questioning and detaining all the Chechens they can find.

Human rights organizations say Chechens are often stopped on the street, or police go to their apartments and bring them into the police station, for no reason except they are Chechen. A Chechen parliament member says his office has received hundreds of complaints from all over Russia from Chechens who say the police have planted drugs or weapons on them.

Chechens are also reporting discrimination by the general public. Some have been evicted from their apartments. Some Chechen schoolchildren have been harassed by their classmates.

This isn't the first time Chechens have run into these problems. Svetlana Gannushkina runs the Committee on Civil Assistance, an organization that helps people protect their rights. She says many of the Chechen refugees she's spoken with were here in 1999 after a series of apartment bombings in Russia killed about 300 people. Russian authorities blamed the explosions on Chechen rebels and police stepped up apartment searches and checking people on the street.

Ms. Gannushkina says people here remember that experience and are afraid it will be repeated after the hostage-taking incident.

Allegations of misconduct by Russian police go back much farther than these recent incidents. Human rights groups have accused Russian police forces of using such tactics on many people, not just Chechens. A recent report by Amnesty International accuses the police of illegally detaining people and using torture to extract confessions.

But human rights organizations say Chechens are especially vulnerable because they are often portrayed as criminals and terrorists in the Russian media. They are associated with the more than three-year long war in Chechnya where thousands of Russian soldiers have died.

Russian officials have warned the general public that harassment of Chechens is not acceptable. In the midst of the hostage crisis, President Vladimir Putin warned in a televised meeting with his cabinet that threats against Chechens by anyone would not be tolerated.

Mr. Putin said one of the goals of the terrorists was to sow national dissent. He said people in Russia do not have the right to take illegal measures against Chechens simply because of the hostage crisis. Russian officials also deny there is a police campaign against Chechens. In a press conference Thursday, Moscow's mayor told reporters this week that Chechens would not be singled out, saying that is illegal.

But many Chechens say the message is being ignored. The day after the siege started, a group of about six policemen came to the Moscow home of another Chechen woman, 33-year-old Elita. They took her two sons, aged 14 and 16, to the police station for questioning. They were released later in the day.

Elita says she decided to keep her children home for a few days after that because Chechen friends called to warn her that something might happen to them on the way to or from school.

When asked what she will do to cope with the new pressures on Chechens in Moscow, Elita breaks down in tears and says she doesn't know.