(Moscow) – Police should carry out a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation into the death of an independent journalist in Russia’s North Caucasus, Human Rights Watch said today. Timur Kuashev, a freelance journalist and rights activist, was found dead in the outskirts of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, on August 1, 2014. His friends and colleagues told Human Rights Watch they strongly believe Kuashev’s death was a murder in retaliation for his activism.
“There are strong grounds to suspect foul play in this case,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The investigation needs to examine the possibility that Kuashev was murdered in retaliation for his activism and journalism.”
Kuashev, 26, was a correspondent for Dosh, a prominent independent magazine focused on the North Caucasus, and also wrote for Caucasian Knot and Caucasus Politics, independent web portals providing current affairs coverage on the Caucasus. His articles dealt mostly with the persecution of religious Muslims, including allegations of police abuse and fair trial violations. He was covering, among other things, the trial of over 50 people charged with terrorism offenses in connection with an armed uprising in Nalchik in 2005.
Kuashev was also a prominent rights activist and worked closely with local representatives of Memorial Human Rights Center, particularly on cases of police abuse. Kuashev was very active on social media, including Live Journal and VKontakte. He also planned to run for Kabardino-Balkaria’s legislative assembly in the September 2014 election as a candidate for the opposition Yabloko party.
Late in the evening of July 31, Kuashev’s mother returned to the apartment they shared to discover that her son was gone, though his wallet, ID, and cell phone were left behind. She assumed that Kuashev, who was athletic, may have gone to work out, but contacted other relatives and the police when he had not shown up several hours later.
The next morning, police called Kuashev’s parents and said Emergencies Ministry personnel found the body of a young man in a wooded area, asking them to come in for identification. The parents identified their son. A representative of local investigation authorities made a public statement that Kuashev’s body bore no traces of violence and that the authorities had no grounds to suspect that his death was the result of a crime.
However, Rustam Matsev, a local human rights lawyer who had worked closely with Kuashev, told Human Rights Watch that the forensic doctor who performed Kuashev’s autopsy noted a trace of a needle prick, likely an injection, under Kuashev’s arm. Matsev told Human Rights Watch that forensic experts took samples of Kuashev’s blood and bodily fluids to test for toxins and other abnormalities. The authorities are awaiting the test results and law enforcement authorities have opened an inquiry into Kuashev’s death.
Kuashev’s friends and colleagues told Human Rights Watch that throughout the past year, he often received threats online, mostly through social media from people writing under aliases. For example, Matsev told Human Rights Watch he helped Kuashev lodge a complaint with the authorities in May 2013 about death threats from several social media users. The complaint, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, quoted specific threats, mostly warning Kuashev to keep quiet unless he wanted to “die young.” Kuashev had urged the authorities to identify the people who had been threatening him and to bring them to justice. But law enforcement authorities carried out only a perfunctory preliminary inquiry and refused to open a criminal investigation, Matsev said.
Other activists killed in the North Caucasus region after authorities dismissed their complaints about threats include Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya and Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev and Khadzhimurad Kamalov in Dagestan, Human Rights Watch said. These murders remain unpunished.
A friend of Kuashev’s told Human Rights Watch that over the past year police and security officials regularly telephoned him to “invite” him for “conversations” warning him to “be careful” and suggesting that his activism and his publications could get him in trouble. In June 2014, security officials reportedly contacted Kuashev’s father and told him to “rein in his son before something bad happens to him.” They specifically wanted Kuashev’s father to try to convince his son to stay away from public activism and journalism.
“Time and again we see activists and journalists in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus receive threats, report them to the authorities, and have their complaints dismissed without proper investigation,” Williamson said. “When a young and healthy man, who also happened to be a high profile activist and journalist, is found dead, a thorough investigation is an absolute must.”