(Moscow) - Russian authorities need to take immediate steps to guarantee the safety of human rights defenders and civic activists in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said today. Russia should also promptly investigate the harassment and threats in recent days by local security services against staff members of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said.
"After three brutal murders of activists, the escalating violence and now more threats, this is an absolutely urgent matter for the Russian authorities," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Security clearly should not be left to the local authorities."
Akhmed Gisayev, a Memorial employee who had been working with Natalia Estemirova to investigate a sensitive human rights case in the days before her murder on July 15, 2009, has experienced a series of menacing events in the past days and weeks.
In the evening of August 13, a group of three or four armed men stopped Gisayev and his wife near their apartment in Grozny. The men pointed their weapons at Gisayev and demanded his documents. They refused to identify themselves or explain the reasons for the search. When Gisayev said that he worked at Memorial and showed his Memorial ID card, one of the men said: "And it's your colleagues who are getting killed? And do you know why they're getting killed?" They then returned Gisayev's passport and left. The next morning, on August 14, Russian military and local security personnel conducted a passport check-and-search operation on Gisayev's street. Such operations used to occur regularly, but have not occurred in Gisayev's region for a long time. Some of the men who had threatened him the previous evening were among those who searched his apartment.
Prior to these events, Gisayev had observed a car parked next to his house on several occasions. The car had dark windows, a radio transmitter, and a license plate with a number not used for civilian vehicles, leading him to suspect that it belonged to the security services. Gisayev reported these incidents to the prosecutor's office in Chechnya, but the authorities did not undertake any concrete measures to investigate them or to ensure Gisayev's protection.
This harassment comes a month after the July 15 abduction and murder of Estemirova, Memorial Grozny's leading researcher, and just days after the abduction and murder of Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, civic activists for a charity in Chechnya that helps children who have disabilities.
"The threats against Gisayev are further evidence that those working for accountability in Chechnya are in grave danger," Cartner said. "This incident, including the possibility of official involvement, merits an immediate investigation."
In the days before Estemirova was killed, Gisayev and Estemirova had been researching the case of a man who had been abducted and tortured by local law enforcement officials. When the man's relatives began to work with Gisayev and Estemirova to take action on his case, the man was taken into incommunicado detention by local law enforcement from the hospital where he had been receiving treatment for his torture injuries. Memorial staff and the man's relatives appealed to the local prosecutor's office in the first week of July. Soon after, Gisayev began to notice the suspicious-looking vehicles outside his home.
Gisayev is an applicant in a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, relating to his own illegal detention and torture by Russian servicemen in 2003.
At least three other Memorial staff members working in Chechnya reported that they were followed or watched by people in cars since mid-July. A car full of armed security officers stood outside Memorial's Grozny office on the evening of July 16, and Memorial was told unofficially by Russian military officials in Grozny that its office was being monitored by local security services, and that Memorial's staff should watch out for danger.
Human Rights Watch urged Russia's international partners to raise the issue of safety for human rights and civic activists with the Russian government and make clear that they will monitor the situation.
"The safety of human rights workers in Russia should be at the top of the agenda for Russia's international partners," Cartner said. "The US and the EU should make it clear that ‘business as usual' cannot continue as long as those who work to promote the rule of law in Russia are brazenly murdered and threatened."