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Russian Jew describes torture at hands of Chechen kidnappers

MOSCOW, June 21 (JTA) — A Jewish officer in the Russian army who was kidnapped last year in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has been freed in a prisoner swap. After his June 16 release, Lt. Sergei Fishman, 25, told JTA that his kidnappers in Chechnya had tortured him, singling him out for especially harsh treatment because of his Jewish roots. “They kept saying that Jews were to blame for the war” between Russia and Chechnya, said Fishman, who was kidnapped last December just outside his garrison near the Chechen border, to which he had been dispatched a few months earlier after graduating from a military college. According to previous Russian news reports, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has repeatedly alleged that his region was the victim of an international conspiracy in which Israel played a crucial role. The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $50,000 for Fishman, but they received no money, according to the Russian Interior Ministry, which provided no further details about the means used to secure his release. Fishman, who has scars on his face and head, also told JTA that his kidnappers had sold him four times to other gangs in Chechnya. After being held in dank basements and mountain guerrilla bases for six months, Fishman requires medical treatment and rehabilitation — services that will be provided by the Jewish community, according to Pavel Feldblum, executive vice president of the Moscow Jewish community. Jewish communal leaders in the Russian capital had pressed Russian officials to seek the release of Fishman, a native of a small town in southeastern Russia’s Altai Region. Chechnya has seen a wave of kidnappings after the end of its 21-month war against Moscow in 1996. Most of the kidnappings are apparently carried out for ransom by rival clans and outlaw groups who have turned hostage-taking into something of a national sport. Although Chechnya has introduced the death penalty for kidnappers, authorities find it difficult to enforce laws in the anarchic region. Hundreds of Russians and several foreigners are currently held hostage within Chechen territory. Scores of Russian hostages and four foreigners have been killed. Fishman was at least the second Jew kidnapped by Chechen gangs during the past three years. Another Jew, a citizen of the Chechen capital of Grozny, was taken hostage in 1997. He was released the same year. Until its war with Russia, Chechnya had a sizeable Jewish community. But most Jews there were evacuated to Israel during a Jewish Agency for Israel rescue mission in 1996.