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The arrests by Russian authorities of 10 journalists and two human rights defenders during a violent protest in Ingushetia on January 26, 2008 undermines independent reporting, Human Rights Watch said today.

Said-Khussein Tsarnaev, a photojournalist for RIA-Novosti, and Mustafa Kurskiev, a correspondent for two Moscow-based print outlets, were among 10 journalists and two human rights activists detained while covering a demonstration in Ingushetia’s capital, Nazran. The police reportedly arrested the two while they were filming a building that had been set on fire. A staff member of the Memorial Human Rights Center who witnessed the arrests told Human Rights Watch that police severely beat Kurskiev. Tsarnaev and Kurskiev spent the night at the Nazran Police Department. According to Memorial, they were denied access to counsel, food and even water. Though Kurskiev needed medical assistance, he was not allowed to see a doctor.

“Ingush authorities are trying to silence dissent by stopping journalists from doing their jobs,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s disgraceful that Kurskiev and Tsarnaev were detained and ill-treated by police just because they were covering a protest.”

On the morning of January 27, the journalists were transferred to the Temporary Detention Center (IVS) in Nazran and threatened with arson charges. That evening, they were sent back to the Nazran Police Department and released around 9 p.m., owing to strong pressure from Russian and international human rights organizations and media.

On January 26, several hundred people attempted to hold a demonstration in Nazran to protest government repression and corruption in Ingushetia. As people arrived to join the protest, armored personnel carriers and trucks surrounded the area. Police shortly thereafter dispersed the protest by firing bullets in the air and detaining protesters. Violent clashes erupted between protesters and police. Several people had to be hospitalized for injuries and dozens more were detained. Among those detained were two staff members of Memorial, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya and Timur Akiyev, who were held for 10 hours and interrogated as witnesses to “mass riots.” Federal Security Service and police photographed and fingerprinted them. Despite their repeated requests, their lawyer could get access to them only seven hours after their detention.

Other journalists arrested while covering Saturday’s demonstration were Roman Plyusov and Vladimir Varfolomeev, both of Echo Moscow radio; Danila Galperovich, of Radio Liberty; Olga Bobrova of Novaya Gazeta; two correspondents of St. Petersburg Channel Five TV; and two correspondents of Russian State TV. The police confiscated their video, photo and recording equipment, as well as identification documents. Galperovich told Human Rights Watch that he was manhandled by police and shoved into a police car when he attempted to ask a police officer how many people suffered in the clash between law enforcement officials and the protesters.

The journalists were held at the Nazran Police Department and interrogated as witnesses to the demonstration. Galperovich reported that in the evening, the rapid reaction unit (SOBR) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Internal Affairs arrived at the Nazran Police Department to “deport” the journalists from the “counter-terrorist operation zone for the sake of [their] security.” The correspondents were then taken to Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, in armored vehicles.

On January 25, the Ingush government had declared several parts of Ingushetia to be “counter-terrorist operation zones” allegedly to protect civilians from attacks by armed separatist groups based in neighboring Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch has reported on the excessive use of force during another demonstration in Ingushetia in October 2006 and documented a brutal attack on Memorial human rights activists and journalists in November 2007.

“With tensions rising, Ingushetia needs more independent reporting, not less,” said Cartner. “The Ingush government should stop harassing journalists and ensure freedom of expression.”

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