Human Rights Activists in the North Caucasus Continue to be Harassed and Attacked

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 1

The rapporteur on the human rights situation in the North Caucasus for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Dick Marty, is expected to deliver his report titled “Legal remedies for human rights violations in the North-Caucasus Region” in Strasbourg on June 22. Meanwhile, the grim human rights situation in the North Caucasus displays few signs of improvement.

On June 17, a female Dagestani lawyer, Sapiyat Magomedova, was beaten up by police in Khasavyurt in the northern part of the republic. Magomedova was trying to secure permission from an investigator to visit her client, who had been arrested that same day, and the investigator reportedly ordered the policemen “to throw [the lawyer] out” of the police building. Magomedova suffered a number of serious injuries and was taken to the hospital, but the doctors refused to provide the results of the official medical examination, which could be used as evidence against the police (, June 18).

Police pressure on Sapiyat Magomedova might be explained by the circumstances surrounding her client, Malika Evtemirova, who had approached the lawyers after being the target of threats and blackmail by police, who tried to extract over $10,000 from her. As a lawyer who has often defended citizens against the authorities, Magomedova had herself been threatened repeatedly even prior to the latest incident (, June 19).

Human rights activists residing in Moscow, but working on North Caucasus issues, are also at a high risk. The brazen killing of the well-known Chechen rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, in July 2009 resurfaced in the news as the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, appeared to press ahead with bringing charges against Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial human rights center. Soon after Estemirova, who was a member of the Memorial organization, was kidnapped in Grozny and found dead in the neighboring Ingushetia the same day, her colleague Oleg Orlov accused Kadyrov of being involved in the murder. Kadyrov retaliated with a libel case that he later reportedly dropped. However, Orlov was unexpectedly summoned to appear before investigators regarding this case on July 6, when he may be formally charged with defamation and even detained (, June 18).

Estemirova’s murder has not been solved and some of her colleagues say that it has not even been investigated. The same applies to the murder of the rights activists, Zarema Sadullaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, the married couple who were killed in August 2009. The reason for the investigators’ timidity in Chechnya could only plausibly be a result of pressure from the republican leadership: Ramzan Kadyrov and his henchmen repeatedly threatened rights activists in Chechnya, including Estemirova on several occasions, equating them with the insurgents and calling them “terrorists.”

In this atmosphere of utter impunity, it is no wonder that fear has also penetrated the circle of Chechen rights activists. Memorial’s officer in Chechnya, Doka Itslaev, complained that Corriere della Sera reporter, Andrea Nicastro, twisted his words in his extremely critical article published in this popular Italian newspaper (, June 18). Nicastro vividly described the multiple signs of Ramzan Kadyrov’s personality cult on Grozny’s streets and the rule of the so-called anti-terrorist groups, or kadyrovtsy, which spread awe and fear in Chechnya (, June 14).

The preliminary report of Council of Europe rapporteur, Dick Marty, emphasized the threats against the government’s opponents, noting that “recurrent disappearances of opponents of the government and champions of human rights still remain widely unpunished and are not elucidated with due diligence, reprisals are taken against the families of persons suspected of belonging to illegal armed factions (setting fire to their dwellings; the close relatives of the suspect or suspects are abducted or receive dire threats), there reigns a climate of intimidation of the media and civil society, and the judicial organs plainly do nothing about the misdeeds of the security forces.” The report dubbed the situation in the North Caucasus, and especially in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, as the most critical in terms of human rights violations in the entire geographic space of the Council of Europe, which includes, among others, all the countries of the South Caucasus (, May 31).

The impunity that the Russian law enforcement agencies apparently enjoy in the North Caucasus is likely to be part of the government’s policy, rather than a vexing aberration. Oleg Orlov of Memorial thinks that even though PACE’s resolutions do not have an impact on the fate of real people, still they are capable of forcing the Russian government to pay more attention to human rights issues in the North Caucasus (, June 20).

Russian government officials habitually pride themselves in being immune to the criticism coming from foreign governments and organizations. At the same time, the Russian government has repeatedly subscribed to the values and principles of those same foreign governments and organizations, like the rule of law, freedom of speech, democratic participation, etc. But aside from this inconsistency, Moscow’s failure to react to international criticism also fundamentally undercuts its own legitimacy in the North Caucasus, as Russia does not live up to the state standards that it has voluntarily set for itself.