By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Islam Umarpashayev had lost hope of getting away alive from Chechen security forces after he was kidnapped from his home, beaten and held for months in a basement, handcuffed to a radiator.
But the 26-year-old Chechen survived and, more than a year after his release, is fighting what could be a landmark case against his captors.
Human rights groups say progress in the case could signal a turning point after years of impunity for Chechen security forces fighting an Islamist insurgency, in which rights activists say hundreds of civilians have disappeared.
Federal Russian investigators have taken on the case, raising the activists' hopes that it could lead to what they say would be the first prosecution of the mainly Muslim region's security forces for five years.
Rights groups say Russian authorities have turned a blind eye to abuses in return for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov keeping at least a shaky peace, but the Kremlin now wants to rein him in because of fears he has won too much autonomy.
"Some kind of political decision has been made at the top not to allow any more of this (abuse), and to use the judicial system to bring the Chechen authorities back to reality," said Oleg Orlov, head of the Russian human rights group Memorial.
Kadyrov has denied any part in abductions or killings in Chechnya, which remains volatile after two separatist wars with Moscow. Chechnya's OMON special police chief, Alikan Tsakayev, denied his force has detained civilians illegally and said he was cooperating with investigators.
But rights groups say Kadyrov has spread a climate of fear in Chechnya and Umarpashayev's case is vital because he is the only survivor brave enough to cooperate with investigators.
In an interview after months in hiding, Umarpashayev told Reuters the Chechen security officers had released him to convince his father to drop an appeal over his case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.
Umarpashayev, who said he did not know why he was detained, said he was still afraid of what might happen to him but he would not give up his fight for justice.
"There is one guy, I'm scared of falling back into his hands alive ... but there is no way back for me," he said, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes on a dark street in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod on his way back to Chechnya.
"GROOMED TO LOOK LIKE REBELS"
Umarpashayev was freed after four months captivity on April 2 last year following pressure from European diplomats. Rights activists used his mobile phone to track him down and fought for his release at the court in Strasbourg.
The European court has ruled against Russia in 186 cases involving Chechnya, and while Moscow has paid thousands of dollars in fines as a result, the court has few means to ensure it acts to prevent repeat violations.
Umarpashayev said the security officers who beat him had told him he was being groomed to look like thick-bearded rebels and would be shot in a mock counter-terrorism operation.
"They wouldn't let me shave. With a beard and long hair, I would look like a militant. They told me: 'We'll give you fatigues and a gun and you'll die like a man!'," he said.
At one stage in the investigation, Umarpashayev said he had risked leaving state witness protection to return to Chechnya to identify one of his kidnappers.
His father, Irisbai, said threats had forced him and six other relatives to also flee but the family was continuing to seek justice.
"My son is the only one who went in to that hell and came out alive because we fought. We will keep fighting," he said.
Chronically jobless and raised during wars, Umarpashayev put his faith in an anti-establishment strain of Salafi Islam.
But he says he has no sympathy with militants seeking to establish an Islamic state in Russia's North Caucasus.
Human rights activist Igor Kalyapin, Umarpashayev's lawyer, said his client had been targeted for criticizing policemen in mobile phone conversations with other young people.
"Since Kadyrov became leader, not one officer has ever been brought to justice. To even hint of shortcomings among Chechen police or that, God forbid, they torture people, is taboo," he said.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Kadyrov, said human rights campaigners misunderstood the situation.
"Officers are killed every day and badly wounded fighting terrorists. Should there really be criminal cases against them?" he asked.
FEAR OF REPRISALS
But Memorial, whose activists have been described by Kadyrov as "enemies of the people" for their efforts to expose rights abuses in Chechnya, said security forces had kidnapped at least 27 people and killed 24 in Chechnya last year.
Two people Umarpashayev says were imprisoned with him are still missing, and rights activists say they fear one is dead and the other has fled abroad.
Memorial says its figures may show only a quarter of the true scale of abuses because many Chechens have feared coming forward since one of the group's leading campaigners, Natalia Estemirova, was shot dead hours after being abducted in 2009.
In a surprise move, investigators said last month they would look into suspicions that local security forces were involved in her death. Memorial had previously accused Russia of not investigating Estemirova's death properly.
Kalyapin said local investigators were afraid of reprisals if they challenged the security forces. He is acting for the families of victims of seven kidnappings in 2009 but said Umarpashayev's was the only one where there had been progress.
In a letter leaked to rights groups last year showing the internal tensions, Viktor Ledenev, the provincial head of the Investigative Committee, complained to regional Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov that forces under his command were obstructing investigations.
Ledenev's deputy, Nikolai Khabarov, went further in a letter to Kalyapin in March. He said investigators were not only failing to solve crimes but colluding in concealing kidnappings.
"As a result ... the perpetrators flee and the whereabouts of the victims is never established," he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)