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.
“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.
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”.
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.”