Dear Mr. Hammarberg:
We write to alert you to the arbitrary detention by Chechen law enforcement officers of four staff members of the Grozny office of the Memorial Human Rights Center. During their detention, they were harassed and threatened with execution, and their belongings were seized and tampered with. We urge you to raise this highly troubling detention with the Russian and Chechen authorities to make sure that they support the unhindered work of human rights defenders. We also ask that you seek assurances that such threats to and detentions of Memorial stop immediately.
The four Memorial staff, Shakhman Akbulatov, Zarema Mukusheva, Milana Bakhaeva, and Yaragi Gayrbekov, were filming a building in the village of Goity on June 17 at around 5:15 p.m. when they were detained, allegedly to determine their identities. Previous reports from human rights groups, local residents, and other investigations all indicated that the building they were filming had been extensively used to confine unlawfully detained people, most of whom remain missing.
The four were approached by several armed men in civilian clothing who, calling themselves “service personnel” (in Russian, “sotrudniki sluzhby”) but not providing any identification, confiscated the Memorial workers’ IDs and video camera, and brought them to the Urus-Martan District Police Department (ROVD) for an identity check. There, the police accused the four of unsanctioned videotaping; collecting information for the Caucus-Center, a Chechen insurgent website, and Ingushetiya.ru, a website affiliated with the political opposition in Ingushetia; and of disseminating allegations about the police’s secret prison, torture, and killings. Police also accused them of working for and supporting “Wahhabists” and urging them to kill police officers.
Police separated Shakhman Akbulatov, head of Memorial in Grozny, from the rest of the group. Akbulatov was questioned first by a man who identified himself as Detective Abdul, and then by six or seven men in camouflage and civilian clothing. They insulted and threatened Akbulatov without allowing him to answer their questions. They asserted that Memorial was forbidden from taping the facility without the permission of the local authorities because of a recent insurgent attack on a motorcade in the village of Chishki and another attack on the village of Benoy-Vedeno. One officer who appeared to be in charge claimed that Memorial had accused him of being the leader of a “[law enforcement] gang” that disappeared and killed people, and said that it was time for them confirm their suspicions. The officer added, “you’ll be sorry you got mixed up with us.” Another officer suggested they bring the four from Memorial to the village of Alkhazurovo, where several policemen had been killed in an attack, and execute them.
The police prevented a Memorial lawyer from gaining access to the detainees for a period of time. The lawyer was admitted only as the detention was ending. Before their release, the police required Akbulatov and Mukusheva to provide a written explanation of their activities in Goity, photographed them both, searched their car, and erased their video recordings. The detention was officially registered as aimed at ascertaining the identity of Akbulatov, Mukusheva, Bakhaeva, and Gayrbekov. As all four presented their passports and Memorial IDs immediately upon request, this explanation seems unfounded. The circumstances of the detention indicate that the detention was specifically aimed at intimidating Memorial personnel and discouraging them from collecting data on human rights abuses in the region.
While Akbulatov, Mukusheva, Bakhaeva, and Gayrbekov have been released, the threat of similar detentions and violence against human rights defenders in Chechnya remains. As you know, Memorial has been subjected to a series of threats and harassment in the past year. Memorial’s Russian and international partners highly value and respect their accurate, on-the-ground reporting. It is understandably very difficult for Memorial or other human rights defenders to work in Chechnya in such a hostile environment. We urge you to follow up with the Russian and Chechen authorities to investigate this incident, and seek assurances that such detentions and threats will not happen in the future. We also urge you to specifically monitor the safety of Memorial staff in the North Caucasus.
Europe and Central Asia Director
Human Rights Watch