GROZNY, Russia -- The cars pull up in broad daylight. Security forces point guns at terrified women and shoot. It turns out they're paintball pellets, but still harsh punishment in Chechnya for leaving home without a headscarf.
Chechnya's strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has imposed an Islamic dress code on women, and his feared security forces have used paintball guns, threats and insults against those refusing to obey.
In a 40-page report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch condemned the campaign as a flagrant violation of women's rights and urged other nations to raise the issue with Moscow.
"The enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code on women in Chechnya violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, thought, and conscience," the report said.
"It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international treaties to which Russia is a party."
Kadyrov rules with the support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has counted on him to stabilize the mostly Muslim region in southern Russia after two separatist wars in the last 16 years. Russian authorities have turned a blind eye to the treatment of women and other rights abuses in Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of women who have experienced or witnessed attacks or harassment for their refusal to adhere to the Islamic dress code.
One of the victims, identified as Louiza, told the rights group that she and a friend were attacked while walking down Putin Avenue in Grozny on a hot day last June, wearing skirts a little below the knee, blouses with sleeves a bit above the elbow and no headscarves. Suddenly a car without a license plate pulled up, its side window rolled down and a gun barrel pointed at them.
"I thought the gun was real and when I heard the shots I thought: 'This is death,"' she recalled in the report. "I felt something hitting me in the chest and was sort of thrown against the wall of a building.
"The sting was awful, as if my breasts were being pierced with a red-hot needle, but I wasn't fainting or anything and suddenly noticed some strange green splattering on the wall and this huge green stain was also expanding on my blouse."
The 25-year-old woman said her friend was hit on her legs and stumbled to the ground. Men dressed in the black uniform of Kadyrov's security forces looked out of the car's windows, laughing and sneering.
"It's only at home that I could examine the bruise and it was so huge and ugly," Louiza recalled. "Since then, I don't dare leave home without a headscarf."
Another target, a 29-year-old woman whose name was not given, said she was walking down the same central avenue in June with two other women, all without headscarves, when two cars stopped nearby and bearded men in black uniforms fired paintball guns at them, screaming: "Cover your hair, harlots!"
The woman told Human Rights Watch that she knows 12 women who were shot at with paintball guns in June. Overall, at least 50 or 60 women were targeted, the rights group said.
Threatening leaflets also appeared on the streets of Grozny, warning women that those who fail to wear headscarves could face "more persuasive measures." The women interviewed by Human Rights Watch interpreted that as a threat to use real weapons.
Kadyrov's security force has been blamed by rights activists for abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya.
In July 2009, the director of the Chechen office of Russia's Memorial rights group, was abducted near her home in Grozny and found shot to death along a roadside a few hours later. Natalya Estemirova had publicly criticized the Islamic dress campaign as a violation of Russian law, angering Kadyrov who had threatened her with repercussions.
A few weeks after the paintball shootings, Kadyrov told local television that he was ready to give awards to the men who carried out the attacks and that the targeted women deserved the treatment. There was no response from the federal authorities.
The paintball attacks ended in mid-June, having achieving Kadyrov's objective. The majority of women are now too scared to enter the center of Grozny without headscarves or dare to complain against the "virtue campaign."
At Chechen State University in Grozny this week, all females students wore headscarves and, toeing the official line, defended the practice as part of local tradition and a sign of respect for Islam.
"The headscarf is part of our religion, part of our faith," said Seda Sabarova, 18.
Kadyrov also scoffed at criticism of his effort to enforce an Islamic dress code, telling foreign reporters that headscarves make women beautiful.