(Moscow) – Russia should ensure the safety of human rights defenders after public threats by Chechnya’s Kremlin-appointed leader, Human Rights Watch said today. The Russian authorities should end harassment of the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (Mobile Group), whose three representatives were the subject of sharp criticism and threats by the Chechen leadership on June 1, 2012.
The Mobile Group was established under the Public Commission on Chechnya, a coalition created by 12 Russian human rights organizations in 2009 following a wave of killing of activists in the region. The group investigates allegations of serious human rights violations by law enforcement and security officials under de facto control of the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. On June 1, Kadyrov and other top Chechen officials criticized the group’s work at a staged meeting, which was then broadcast on television.
“The Mobile Group is carrying the mantle of Natalia Estemirova, the foremost Chechen human rights defender, who was abducted and killed in July 2009,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The group courageously investigates the most sensitive human rights cases in Chechnya, seeking justice for torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial executions.”
Under the leadership or the Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture, the Mobile Group established a permanent presence in Chechnya in early November 2009, with lawyers and other human rights activists from various Russian regions working there on rotation despite great personal risk. The group’s security situation has grown increasingly precarious, Human Rights Watch said. The Mobile Group received the 2011 Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk and the 2011 Human Rights Prize of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
On June 1, the Mobile Group’s representatives in Chechnya joined a rally in the center of Grozny, the Chechen capital, against enforced disappearances organized by local activists and the relatives of the disappeared. Magomed Daudov, the new head of administration for Kadyrov and the Chechen government, and the mayor of Grozny, Muslim Khuchiev, unexpectedly showed up at the rally. They approached the Mobile Group’s activists and demanded to know the purpose of their stay in the republic. The activists responded, and Daudov and Khuchiev pressed them to go to the city hall for a “detailed conversation.”
The “conversation,” however, proved to be a meeting with Kadyrov, Ruslan Alkhanov, Chechnya’s internal affairs minister, and other local officials. The head of the Investigation Committee for Chechnya, Viktor Ledenev, and the republic’s prosecutor, Vladimir Savchin, also participated. Several mothers of the disappeared, who had attended the rally, were brought there as well. The entire event was filmed by a television crew.
Kadyrov opened the meeting with a long, threatening speech about the Mobile Group. He said that the activists, “hated the people of Chechnya,” “came [to Chechnya] for financial gain,” “helped devils [insurgents] and their collaborators,” and strove to provoke conflicts and destabilize the situation in the republic. Kadyrov also said that in his view human rights organizations are not interested in the well-being of the Chechen people and asserted that he is their only source of help and justice.
Kadyrov’s head of administration, Daudov, then accused the Mobile Group of paying local residents to give fake reports of torture and described how he had detained three other members of the group in February 2010, when he was police chief in the Shali district of Chechnya, and held them overnight. He noted that the Mobile Group had filed a complaint over the incident with the European Court on Human Rights, contending that the detention was unlawful and, he said, portraying him “as a criminal.” He said, however, that his actions had been justified because the activists were “bribing people” to give false testimony.
The activists were not given an opportunity to refute the accusations. Instead, the floor was given to the head of the Investigation Committee and prosecutor, who contended that the Mobile Group interferes with the work of police and investigators and called the group’s work counterproductive and unnecessary. Later that day, Chechen television aired a lengthy broadcast from the meeting during prime time news.
“Victims and witnesses of human rights violations in Chechnya are silenced by strong fear of retribution, but the few local residents who still dare seek justice come to the Mobile Group for legal aid and support,” Lokshina said. “Broadcasting Ramzan Kadyrov criticizing the Mobile Group sent a clear warning to local residents to stay away and that the Mobile Group’s activists have been essentially declared persona non grata in the republic.”
Human Rights Watch expressed serious concerns over the threatening events on June 1 and called on the Russian authorities to guarantee that the Mobile Group can continue its work in Chechnya unhindered, in line with top Russian officials’ repeated commitments to foster a normal working climate for human rights defenders in the region.
Russia has binding legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect people such as those who participate in or cooperate with the Mobile Group from risks and threats to their persons from third parties, most particularly agents of the state.
The known risk to activists in Chechnya, reinforced by blatant public threats by Kadyrov, who is alleged to be personally behind a number of cases of torture and killings, heightens the obligation of the Russian authorities to act urgently, Human Rights Watch said. The Russian authorities need to ensure the Mobile Group’s safety and to guarantee that they and those who work with them can exercise their fundamental rights in a secure environment.