It is big news in Russia, but the media in the U.S. have all but ignored an apparent effort by the Clinton administration to prevent a 13-year-old Russian girl from telling a tale of Chechen terrorism at a U.S. press conference.
Alla Geifman was kidnapped on her way home from school last May. She was held and tortured by Chechen forces until December, when she was rescued by agencies of the Russian Interior Ministry. The Free Congress Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has been trying to arrange a press conference in the U.S. with the girl and her father.
At least 1,000 other Russians have also been kidnapped for ransom in an effort by Chechnya to finance the conflict with Russia. Many of the victims have been children of businessmen, as well as journalists.
Dmitri Balburov, a journalist for the newspaper Moskovsky Novosti, was covering the war in Chechnya when he was kidnapped. He was held and tortured for four months before he was suddenly released under mysterious circumstances.
Russian photojournalist Vladimir Yatsina, who was abducted in July 1999, was reported to be murdered by his captors a week ago.
Alisher Orazaliye, a businessman and freed hostage, told a Russian news conference that he witnessed the murder.
“I was chained to a bed during my captivity and had trouble walking when I was freed,” said Orazaliye.
Kidnapping is a lucrative business in Chechnya. Press reports in Russia number the total of victims at over 1,000 so far. Most are treated brutally, with fingers or ears frequently cut off and sent to relatives to prove the captors mean business. One press account told of a kidnapped businessman watching as another kidnap victim was beheaded.
Although Russian special forces have managed to liberate many kidnap victims recently, about 800 still remain in the hands of their captors, according to press accounts.
“It is such a rare occurrence for us that it is hard in our culture to fathom this,” said Free Congress Foundation’s Robert McFarland.
“The American media and the American government really choose to take sides in this issue and show that this is all the Russians’ fault. They decide not to let anyone know about how the Chechens are wreaking horrible abuses on the Russians as well. I’m not saying that the Russians aren’t doing horrible things, but what I think people need to know is that neither side is innocent in this whole situation,” said McFarland.
Shortly after Geifman was kidnapped, a ransom note was sent to her parents asking for the equivalent of $5 million. The package included two fingers from her left hand.
Giefman and her father want to come to the United States to tell their story, but their visa application was stamped “rejected.” News of the denial created immediate controversy in the Russian press.
“It just so happened that it was that exact same day that the Associated Press reported that in the State Department’s annual report on human rights, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has asked Russia to launch ‘full and open investigations into credible reports of massacres and other human rights violations in Chechnya.’ So we wondered if there was a reason that the State Department might not want this 13-year-old girl coming up here in the United States to mess up their foreign policy plans,” said McFarland.
U.S. Consul General in Moscow Laura Clerici said the visa application process was not over, and that Geifman’s application was not rejected completely — only pending a personal interview at the Embassy.
Yet, although Geifman’s visa application was rejected on Feb. 25, Clerici made the invitation to interview the girl only last week — after angry reports in the Russian press.
The Itar-Tass news agency reported “certain indignation from sources of Itar-Tass, especially against the background of unimpeded issuing U.S. entrance visas to Chechen emissaries of president Aslan Maskhadov.”
“We know that for envoys of the Chechen bandits, Washington gives visas without any delays or interviews,” McFarland explained.
Because of the media attention focused on Geifman for the past two weeks, her parents decided to keep her at home to avoid being confronted by the press at the embassy. The Geifmans did not say when they would go to the embassy.
“For anyone who is unfamiliar with the media spotlight, that can be an intimidating situation,” McFarland said of the family decision not to appear for the interview scheduled for Monday.
Her father, Grigory Geifman, is a prominent businessman in Saratov, Russia, who met the initial rejection notice by the U.S. with surprise and disappointment.
“We always thought of America as the strongest defender of freedom and democracy. It seemed to us that America is always ready to help victims of terrorism. I deeply regret the refusal and ask for any possible help in getting the visas,” he told Itar-Tass.
“We would like to have her story be told. We think that it’s a horrible crime that this information is not getting out. This story is a huge issue in Russia right now, but it’s barely trickled into the United States,” said McFarland.
“If she were to come over here to this country, she would provide a very interesting and balanced perspective of what is going on in the conflict between Russia and Chechnya. She would be able to give a look into the Chechen kidnapping industry, and how many, many Russian have been kidnapped and then had money extorted from their families,” he said.
The Free Congress Foundation specializes in promoting judicial reform, opposing judicial activism, preventing the encroachment of government into citizens’ lives and promoting cultural conservatism against the tide of political correctness.