Last Wednesday, March 9, a group of masked men attacked eight human rights defenders and journalists, including two foreign reporters, at the Chechnya-Ingushetia border. The assailants dragged the individuals out of their car, beat them, and set the vehicle on fire, destroying their personal belongings.
Later that same day, the Karabulak office of the domestic interregional NGO, the Committee for Prevention of Torture, was attacked by a group of unknown masked men who, according to witnesses, attempted to destroy documents and computers in the office.
Attacks of this kind are not new in Chechnya. These particular assaults may, however, signify the beginning of a new and unprecedented wave of hostilities toward human rights defenders and journalists in the region, sparked by none other than the Chechen leadership.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya and a loyalist of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has directly threatened leaders of the opposition, along with human rights activists, lawyers, and independent journalists who have criticized the Kremlin’s domestic and international policies.
On January 13, 2016, at a press conference in the Chechen capital, Grozny, Kadyrov invoked Stalin-era rhetoric in calling Russian opposition figures “traitors” and demanding they be tried as “enemies of the [Russian] people.” Kadyrov claimed these individuals serve Western interests and are directly connected with Western intelligence services.
In response to this incident, Russian journalists and opposition leaders immediately demanded the Kremlin denounce Kadyrov’s statement, as a direct threat and form of intimidation. Ella Pamfilova, High Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, was the only government official to issue an official statement calling Kadyrov’s proclamations “pointless and harmful.” President Putin did not condemn Kadyrov’s rhetoric.
On January 22, a rally in support of the Chechen leader took place in Grozny. According to The Interpreter, about one million Chechens took part in the event, which was intended to support Kadyrov’s criticisms of the Russian opposition. Reporters who covered the rally noticed, however, that the signs being used by protesters featured identical designs and messaging. Indeed, many of these posters, which featured caricatures of prominent independent journalists and politicians, contained the same words, like “traitors” and “fifth column,” that Kadyrov had used in his January 13 speech. According to Russia’s, RBC TV, some demonstrators even claimed their employers ordered them to attend the rally and threatened to fire them if they did not comply.
Such details have left many wondering whether rally participants were truly demonstrating in support of the Chechen leader, or if, instead, the government orchestrated the entire event.
For their part, journalists and activists have claimed that Kadyrov’s verbal threats inspired Wednesday’s attacks. Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders said in an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant that such attacks were made possible by Kadyrov’s statements against his critics.
In its reaction to the violent assault, the Kremlin demonstrated complete indifference toward any evidence of a direct connection between Kadyrov’s statements and the attacks. President Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, treated the incident as an isolated event, describing it as “absolute hooliganism.”
The message for journalists and human rights activists in Russia, whether foreign or domestic, is clear: in Russia, you are not safe from politically motivated attacks or ruthless intimidation tactics; indeed, you are likely to receive such treatment directly from the government itself.