The violent assault on human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists in the Russian Republic of Ingushetia is further evidence of the authorities’ abject failure to protect those who work to safeguard human rights, Amnesty International said Thursday.
Human rights defenders from the Joint Mobile Group (JMG) in the Russian North Caucasus, along with journalists from Russian, Swedish and Norwegian media, were beaten up and had their vehicle set ablaze on Wednesday evening.
“This is the latest and most brazen in a series of attacks on the JMG and journalists in the Russian North Caucasus. So far these attacks have been answered simply with verbal condemnation rather than effective prosecutions,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.
“This is an opportunity for the authorities to demonstrate that their words can be backed by deeds, by bringing to justice not only those who carried out this crime but also those who may have ordered it.”
Russian law contains specific provisions for punishing anyone convicted of using violence or destroying property in order to obstruct the work of journalists.
However, these provisions are not being applied to this attack, which is being investigated only as “hooliganism” – reflected in Russian Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s description of the attack as “absolute hooliganism”.
According to Amnesty, the journalists and HRDs were attacked as they were travelling near the administrative border between Ingushetia and their destination, neighbouring Chechnya.
Their minibus was intercepted by a group of some 20 masked men, travelling in four cars. The men physically assaulted the journalists and HRDs, dragging them from the minibus and beating them up. Eight people were injured and had to seek treatment in hospital.
The attackers, who were armed with batons, warned the group never to come to Chechnya, calling them “terrorists” and “defenders of terrorists”. They also smashed the minibus and set it on fire, damaging equipment and belongings left within the vehicle.
About an hour later, the JMG office in Ingushetia was damaged by at least five armed masked men, suggesting both attacks were co-ordinated. A surveillance camera showed men smashing down a door and breaking into the premises. No JMG members were present in the building at the time.
The JMG was set up in 2009, after the murder of the Chechen human rights defender, Natalia Estemirova. The group investigates human rights violations committed by Chechen officials and others.
The JMG’s founder, Igor Kaliapin, says the group and its members are routinely described in the Chechen press as “enemies of the state”, “terrorists” and as agents of Western security services.
In February, three Russian journalists were unlawfully detained by police officers in the Chechen capital, Grozny. They were later released, but their equipment was confiscated and their photographic materials were destroyed.
Days later, according to Amnesty, a JMG staff member narrowly avoided abduction by Chechen police by alerting his colleagues.