Gadzhi Abashilov, the head of GTRK Dagestan, the Dagestani affiliate of Russia’s state television and radio company, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he traveled home from work in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, on March 21. His driver was seriously injured in the attack. Just hours earlier, Ilyas Shurpaev, a Dagestan-born journalist who covered the North Caucasus for state television’s Channel One, was found stabbed and strangled in his Moscow apartment after a neighbor reported a fire in the apartment. Russian news reports quoted investigators as saying that the perpetrators had set fire to the apartment in an attempt to conceal the crime.
Various Russian media reported that Shurpaev had apparently asked his building’s concierge to permit two young men of North Caucasus origin into his building shortly before he was killed and that no valuables were taken from his apartment. However, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported on March 27 that investigators had managed to identify Shurpaev’s killers, who had tracked him down through his blog and the Odnoklassniki social networking website. The newspaper also reported that investigators believe he was murdered when he resisted the perpetrators attempts to rob him and quoted relatives as saying that money was indeed missing from Shurpaev’s apartment.
On March 18, three days before the murders of Gadzhi Abashilov and Ilyas Shurpaev, Kavkazky Uzel reported that both men were on a “black list” compiled by the founder of a weekly newspaper in Dagestan. The website reported that Rizvan Rizvanov, founder of the weekly Nastoyashchee Vremya (The Present Tense), had fired the paper’s editor-in-chief, Andrei Melamedov, and was trying to get rid of other staffers. According to Kavkazky Uzel, staffers of the weekly accused Rizvanov of allowing the paper to be used as a platform for attacks on Dagestan’s president, Mukhu Aliev. The staffers also declared in an open letter that Rizvanov had given Melamedov, the editor-in-chief, a list of people not to be mentioned in the newspaper, including Ilyas Shurpaev and Gadzhi Abashilov. The Nastoyashchee Vremya journalists said in their open letter that they wanted work for a “normal” newspaper, not a “press organ of this or that clan.”
However, the Moscow Times on March 24 quoted Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an independent media watchdog, as saying he was a friend of Shurpaev’s and thought it unlikely that his death was related to his work.
“He was never involved in any kind of aggressive journalism,” Panfilov said. “When he went to Chechnya and Beslan, for example, his reporting was very balanced and fair.” Panfilov also told the English-language newspaper that the murders of Shurpaev and Abashilov were probably not connected to one another and that Abashilov’s death might have been organized by rivals. “I think it’s simply the criminal situation in Dagestan, where a person can be killed because of his position, so that someone can occupy his post,” Panfilov said. He added that Abashilov was known primarily as a government official, not as a journalist, and that the newspaper that he previously edited, Molodyozh Dagestana, was “absolutely pro-government.”
Whatever the case, the murders of Gadzhi Abashilov and Ilyas Shurpaev were just several among many acts of violence connected to Dagestan that took place over the past week. Itar-Tass reported on March 27 that two militants had been killed during a special operation carried out by Dagestani law-enforcement bodies in the town of Dagestanskiye Ogni. According to the news agency, three armed militants were holed up in a three-room apartment located in a 90-apartment building on the town’s Pushkin Street. In response to the authorities’ order to surrender, the gunmen threw several grenades at law-enforcers and fired automatic weapons. A special task police officer received a tangential wound in the exchange, a law-enforcement official said.
Police identified the three militants as local residents Dzhamamed and Chengiz Kurbanov, and Artur Araskuliev, a resident of the town of Derbent. According to police, Dzhamamed and Chengiz Kurbanov are suspected in the murder of a police officer last fall, and Chengiz Kurbanov is himself a former traffic police officer. There was no indication which of the three men had been killed.
Kavkazky Uzel reported on March 25 that one police officer was killed and two wounded when unidentified gunmen ambushed a traffic police unit on the outskirts of the city of Khasavyurt. The website earlier reported that a planned attack on police in Dagestan’s Karabudakhkentsky district was thwarted on March 20 when an improvised explosive device was discovered on the outskirts of the city of Gubden, about 1,500 meters from the Gubden-Levashi highway, and defused.
For its part, the chairwoman of the group “Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights,” Gulnara Rustamova, recently wrote an appeal to the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Memorial human rights group complaining about “arbitrariness and impunity” on the part of Dagestani law-enforcement personnel, Kavkazky Uzel reported on March 25. She said that while the number of kidnappings of young people in Dagestan has dropped significantly since her organization began its work, she and two other members of the group began receiving threats after they arranged a meeting between journalists and someone who had been abducted and subsequently freed. Rustamova said that police have repeatedly threatened her younger brother Vadim, several of whose friends and acquaintances have been abducted this month, apparently by law-enforcement personnel. According to Rustamova, some of those taken into custody have been accused of ties to militants and beaten and tortured while in custody. Kavkazky Uzel quoted Rustamova as claiming that an “organized crime group” headed by high-ranking police officials is operating in Dagestan. “The arbitrariness and impunity of the power structures is pushing young people to go into the woods and take up arms,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kavkazky Uzel on March 27 quoted residents of the village of Gimry in Dagestan’s Untsukulsky district as saying that the special operation launched by Russian and Dagestani security forces there last December has not yet been completed and that local residents have been given no indication when it might end. “Today or tomorrow the military and police will leave the village, and then we will be left face-to-face with our misfortunes,” the head of Gimry’s administration, Aliaskhab Magomedov, told the website. “We are fruit growers, but the state took the most fertile land from us during the building of the tunnel, the Irganai Hydroelectric Station, and the villagers received nothing in exchange. Everywhere there are promises. Today there are more than 500 families in the village without land. Up to 80 percent of the young guys are sitting at home unemployed. Many of them have families, children. Persimmons are the only source of sustenance, but the harvest this year was only 50 percent completed.”
Reuters reported on March 27 that an oil depot in Makhachkala was on fire. According to the report, a freelance journalist working for Reuters saw huge, thick plumes of black smoke covering almost half of Makhachkala and residents reported hearing a powerful explosion before the fire engulfed the oil depot near the Caspian Sea. Russian news agencies quoted officials of the local emergencies ministry as saying they believed an oil tank standing at the depot’s railway junction had exploded and that a dozen fire engines were trying to put out the flames.