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(Moscow) - The Russian government should immediately investigate the arson attack today on the office of a human rights group in Dagestan, a republic in Russia's North Caucasus region, Human Rights Watch said.

The group, the Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights (MDHR), was formed in 2007 by mothers of young men believed to have been forcibly "disappeared." With an office in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the group gathers information on abuse by the police and other law enforcement authorities as the government fights an Islamist insurgency, and provides legal support to victims of rights violations.

"How many more blatant attacks is it going to take on human rights defenders in the North Caucasus before Russia gets serious about this situation and takes action," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch today. "We are deeply concerned for the safety of the Mothers of Dagestan staff."

At approximately 9:30 on August 20, 2009, Svetlana Isaeva, chairwoman of the group, received a call about the fire from the office's landlord. Another staff member told Human Rights Watch that, when she arrived at the office, the window was broken and there was a smell of gasoline. Most of the office's contents, including furniture, computer equipment and files, had burned.

Local fire investigators have already begun to examine the circumstances of the fire, but have not yet issued a formal report. They told Mothers of Dagestan staff, though, that the fire appears to have resulted from arson, and said that gasoline had been poured in the office and set on fire. The one-room office is in a small building in the courtyard of a five-story residential building. The other room in the small building was unoccupied. No one was hurt in the fire, and it did not appear to have damaged any of the surrounding premises.

Staff members had not used the office for several weeks because the electricity had been cut off without explanation, making an electrical fire extremely unlikely.

Members of the group told Human Rights Watch that there have been many attempts to intimidate them, including some by local security forces, to try to dissuade them from pursuing human rights work. Several Russian media outlets have published articles accusing the group of supporting terrorism and extremism.

Human Rights Watch urged the Russian authorities to examine the case, taking into account the threats as well as the group's work on abuses by local law enforcement, and the growing violence in the North Caucasus, especially against human rights defenders.

"The Russian government has a responsibility to investigate the possibility of local security collusion in these threats and attacks," Cartner said. "If local authorities are in any way involved, or encouraged these attacks against human rights workers and dissenting voices, they need to be held accountable."

The fire follows the shooting death on August 11 in Makhachkala of Abdumalik Akhmedilov, a newspaper editor who had criticized law enforcement officials for suppressing political and religious dissent in their campaign against religious extremism. It also follows a spate of killings of civic activists in the neighboring republic of Chechnya. On July 15, Natalia Estemirova, the leading researcher for the Memorial Human Rights Center office in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was abducted and murdered. On August 10, Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of a nongovernmental organization that helps children with disabilities in Chechnya, and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, were taken from their Grozny office by armed men and discovered murdered the next morning.

Human Rights Watch also called on Russia's international partners to support the Mothers of Dagestan by urging the Russian authorities to take action and to provide assistance to the organization to resume its operations following the fire.

"At a time when Russian's rights defenders are under attack, strong words and strong actions are needed to show support for them," Cartner said.

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