This afternoon, December 11, I was emceeing a news conference at a Moscow press center to draw attention to the shocking use of collective punishment against insurgents’ family members in Chechnya, including burning of their houses by local law enforcement.
The event featured several leading Russian rights groups as well as Human Rights Watch. As I was introducing the speakers, I saw several young men enter the room, two dressed in vests and knitted hats, and sit close to the door. They weren’t taking notes or filming and I sensed something was up. I braced myself for them to shout abuse at the speakers, and praise Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who ordered the collective punishment we were there to denounce. The order came after a devastating insurgent attack on Grozny last week.
But the news conference was already in progress and I didn’t want to interrupt it just because of the suspicious newcomers.
Among the speakers was Igor Kalyapin, head of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian human rights organizations, who had recently filed an official complaint to Russia’s investigation authorities regarding Kadyrov’s recent pledge to have relatives of insurgents from Chechnya expelled and their homes burned to the ground. While Igor was speaking, one man got up and demanded to ask a question. I said he had to wait until the end of the speakers’ statements. He insisted. I asked him to sit down. He started shouting and moving toward the speakers’ table. The two men behind him also jumped up, yelling some incoherent accusations and rushed toward us.
For a second, I thought they’d spray us with pepper gas or something worse, so when they started throwing eggs I felt almost relieved. They aimed at Kalyapin, and as they were literally two steps away from him, they easily hit their target. Kalyapin’s suit was ruined and his hair was a gooey mess. Another colleague and I also got splattered, and a particularly fat blob of raw egg landed on top of my last copy of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report about punitive house burnings in Chechnya.
I asked the press center staff to immediately call the police and the assailants fled. Kalyapin removed his stained jacket and we continued without taking a break to clean up. All of us around the egg-stained table were determined to deliver our message. Police arrived 30 minutes later, and some journalists stayed on to watch the police examine the site and question the victims and witnesses of the attack.
I hope that the law enforcement authorities carry out an effective investigation into the ugly incident at the press center and hold the perpetrators, who are clearly visible and identifiable on video, to account. But I hope even more fervently that the media frenzy resulting from this egg attack will put a spotlight on the Chechen leadership’s lawless policies and finally make the Kremlin step up to meet their legal obligations and stop their abuses.