(Moscow, August 3, 2011) – Threats by the police against a lawyer in Chechnya highlight the need for Russian authorities to end the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in the republic, Human Rights Watch said today.
Supyan Baskhanov, a lawyer who runs the Grozny office of the Committee against Torture, told Human Rights Watch that a senior police officer from Chechnya’s Vedeno district on July 28, 2011, warned him that police authorities were planning to accuse him of collaborating with insurgents and to have his law license revoked.
“The authorities are trying to intimidate one of the few Chechen lawyers fearless enough to represent suspected insurgents and victims of rights violations,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The threats against Supyan Baskhanov are really threats against the rule of law.”
The Committee against Torture, a Russian nongovernmental organization based in Nizhny Novgorod, leads the Joint Mobile Group of the Russian Human Rights Organizations in Chechnya (Mobile Group), which was established in November 2009 to fight impunity for serious abuses by law enforcement agencies in Chechnya. The Committee against Torture employs several local lawyers in Chechnya who closely cooperate with the Mobile Group and help them handle especially sensitive cases, including enforced disappearances and torture.
In 2011, the Mobile Group received the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk and the Human Rights Prize of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for its courageous work in Chechnya.
Baskhanov said that prior to receiving the warning he had learned through informal channels that police in Grozny were allegedly seeking to interfere with his professional activities and had asked the Vedeno police to provide compromising evidence regarding his work on insurgency-related cases. The mountain district of Vedeno is considered to be a major center of insurgent activity in Chechnya, and Baskhanov has represented several local residents in insurgency-related cases.
“The attempt to silence Baskhanov is also aimed at obstructing the important work by the Committee against Torture and the Mobile Group,” Lokshina said.
The authorities have previously threatened Baskhanov over his activist work. On June 24, Baskhanov helped organize a small rally in Grozny to commemorate the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. About 40 local activists and torture victims took part. The demonstration had been approved by the authorities, was peaceful, and did not interfere with public order, but the police still dispersed it.
The Committee against Torture told Human Rights Watch that the police took Baskhanov and Magomed Alamov, another lawyer with the organization, to the Grozny police department and threatened them and their families with reprisals if they persevered in their efforts to hold police accountable for torture and other crimes.
The Committee against Torture immediately filed a complaint about the unlawful dispersal of the rally and the threats against its local staff with Grozny’s Leninsky district office of the Russian Federation Investigation Committee for Chechnya. However, the office refused to open a criminal case, alleging that the investigator in charge was “unable to procure sufficient evidence pointing to a criminal act.”
Threats and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya have increased since the still unpunished murder of Natasha Estemirova, a leading Chechen human rights defender, who was kidnapped from near her apartment building in Grozny and killed on July 15, 2009.
Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring the security of human rights defenders by effectively and impartially investigating the threats against Baskhanov and other Committee against Torture staff members. The government should abide by the pledges of its leadership and international obligations to allow lawyers and activists in Chechnya to engage in human rights work safely.
“We are deeply concerned about the repeated attempts by the Chechen authorities to obstruct the work of human rights lawyers and activists seeking accountability for human rights abuses by the police and security agencies,” Lokshina said.