Open

Coming up

Don't miss

Replay


LATEST SHOWS

AFRICA NEWS

Search of Air Algerie crash site continues

Read more

MEDIAWATCH

Sarkozy, Hollande and the scooter wars

Read more

MEDIAWATCH

Confusion online over Air Algérie flight

Read more

THE WORLD THIS WEEK

The World This Week - July 25th, 2014 (part 2)

Read more

THE WORLD THIS WEEK

The World This Week - July 25th, 2014

Read more

REPORTERS

Halal tourism on the rise

Read more

ENCORE!

Tunisia's Carthage International Festival turns 50

Read more

FRANCE IN FOCUS

WWI Centenary: the battle for Verdun

Read more

THE BUSINESS INTERVIEW

When big companies want to do good

Read more

  • In pictures: Debris and devastation at Air Algérie Flight AH5017 crash scene

    Read more

  • Kerry heads to Paris for new round of Gaza peace talks

    Read more

  • Video: No investigation apparent at site of downed Malaysian plane

    Read more

  • Washington Post correspondent and his wife arrested in Iran

    Read more

  • Paris bans new Gaza protest scheduled for Saturday

    Read more

  • Tour de France fans bring the ambience to the Pyrenees

    Read more

  • French families grieve for Algerian plane crash victims

    Read more

  • Protest against Gaza offensive turns deadly in West Bank

    Read more

  • Halal tourism on the rise

    Read more

  • LA Times wipes France off the map in air crash infographic

    Read more

  • Lithuania’s Navardauskas wins 19th stage of Tour de France

    Read more

  • French lawyer files complaint against Israel at ICC

    Read more

  • Ukraine names acting PM after Yatseniuk's shock resignation

    Read more

  • BNP to pay $80 million for defrauding Dept of Agriculture

    Read more

  • Deadly strike on UN shelter in Gaza Strip

    Read more

  • Pope meets Christian woman sentenced to death in Sudan

    Read more

Europe

The girl who lost her youth to a Stalinist gulag

© Sarah Leduc/ FRANCE 24

Text by Anne-Diandra LOUARN

Latest update : 2012-10-28

Wrongly charged with terrorism eight years ago, 29-year-old Zara Murtazalieva has spent almost all of her adult life in a Stalin-era penal colony. Released just under two months ago, she tells her story to FRANCE 24.

At 20 years old, fatherless Zara Murtazalieva left behind her hometown in war-torn Chechnya to seek work in Moscow, where she could earn enough to help support her family. She soon found a job, began making friends and enrolled at a night school.

When police took her in for questioning in March 2004, Murtazalieva expected a standard identity check – the authorities at that time were still using the terms ‘Chechen’ and ‘terrorist’ interchangeably. But when officers discovered explosives in her bag after the interrogation, Murtazalieva realised she had been framed.

She turned to a police officer she knew, a man of her late father’s age, to plead in her favour. Both from the same town, they knew each other through mutual friends.
But in the end, Murtazalieva would find out that it was this man who had framed her.
“I thought I lived in a democratic country with a fair police force and justice system,” she told FRANCE 24. “But I was wrong.”

“The more guilty people officers ‘find’, the closer they get to receiving a bonus or getting a promotion,” Murtazalieva explained. Intimidation, she said, had become standard procedure. “They make sure you know very well that your freedom is hanging by a thread. They also make sure that you can’t express yourself freely and have no means of protest.”

After a brief trial, Murtazalieva was found guilty of plotting a terror attack and sentenced to eight years behind bars in the IK-13 Potma women’s penal colony, some 450 kilometres east of Moscow in the glacial Mordovia region.

‘Punished for the slightest mistake’

“My experience is far from an isolated case,” Murtazalieva said. “But [unlike many], I benefited from press coverage during my trial. I was very lucky to have human rights activists take up my case.”

One of them, Russian journalist Zoya Svetova, visited Murtazalieva two or three times a year and listened to her story under the glare of the guards. On October 3, she published a damning book on the Russian judiciary, entitled “Finding the Innocent Guilty”. Murtazalieva’s case, among others, is used as an example.

Murtazalieva looks at the French translation of "Finding the Innocent Guilty", in which Russian journalist Zoya Svetova tells her story. Svetova made regular visits to Murtazalieva during her eight-year jail sentence. Photo: © Sarah Leduc/ FRANCE 24.

Beatings, humiliation, solitary confinement… Murtazalieva, who says she has received threats since being released, describes her eight-year ordeal flatly.

“Every day was a struggle to avoid punishments from the staff. We got up at 6am, and spent the day running from one place to another. We never stopped. If we made the slightest mistake, we were punished.” Murtazalieva worked six days a week in the prison sewing shop, stitching together military uniforms.

She remembers her experiences clearly. “The staff regularly confiscated any possessions we had, but the one thing they couldn’t confiscate was my memory. I even remember certain conversations, word by word."

“How we were treated inside depending heavily on our relationship with the staff. I managed to form discreet links with certain members but I had to make sure not to be seen doing it. If they act too humanely towards us, they would get fired.”

As the long days merged into one, there was one event that deeply marked Murtazalieva – a visit from the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee.

“I don’t remember if it was 2006 or 2007 but after they came, our lives were transformed for at least a year. We were almost happy. The staff, some of whom had been fired, were no longer allowed to carry truncheons; we were better fed; even the dress code was softened,” she said. (Before then, they were forced to wear heavy oversized boots, and were deprived of coats, even in winter.) She considers the event as proof that “Russia is not immune to Western pressures”.

‘Miracle’

Despite health problems, Murtazalieva is doing remarkably well two months after her release. She describes her ordeal as a “colossal experience that has allowed me to understand many things about Russia”. Now rediscovering her own country, she finds it deplorable that Stalin-style imprisonment is still in operation.

“On the whole, the situation in Russia has only gotten worse since 2004. At least back then, there was still some press freedom. Today, many publications have either lost their independence or closed their doors, or are about to.”

As for Chechnya, she feels that while the region is less talked about, Caucasian troubles are far from over.

But for now, the girl who disappeared eight years ago just wants to get her life back on track. “I’m planning to return to my studies, to travel, and one day, to get married.,” she said. “Even though when I was 20 I thought there’d be flying taxis by now, when I was released I still felt like I was on another planet. In 2003, the internet was so slow, there was no Facebook, Google, Wikipedia… I had no idea about all these things from inside.”

Recently presented with an iPhone by her lawyer, Murtazalieva says she spent an entire night marvelling at her new device. “Everything that seems natural to you is a novelty for me,” she said, grinning. “It’s like a miracle.”

Date created : 2012-10-28

  • CAUCASUS

    Hilary Swank 'regrets' honouring Chechen leader

    Read more

  • JUSTICE - RUSSIA

    Main suspect in Politkovskaya murder arrested

    Read more

  • RUSSIA

    Chechen insurgents claim Moscow airport bombing

    Read more

COMMENT(S)