Sergei Babinets in the office of the Joint Mobile Group in Grozny, Chechnya on December 14, 2014.

(Moscow) – Russian authorities should act to end a campaign of intimidation and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today after the office of a local human rights group was burned down. They should also offer genuine protection to all activists threatened for doing their work.

In the evening of December 13 the Joint Mobile Group (JMG), a human rights organization that works with nongovernmental organizations from other Russian regions, was destroyed in a fire in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in a suspected arson attack.

“These acts of intimidation are part of an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in the region. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov appears to be waging a personal campaign against the Joint Mobile Group and its leader Igor Kalyapin,” said Anna Neistat, senior director of research at Amnesty International.

Earlier on December 13, 2014, at a demonstration against armed groups operating in the area, banners appeared labelling the NGO as “supporters of terrorism.” On the same day, members of the group were followed by armed, masked men in a car believed to belong to Chechen law enforcement officials.

On December 14, police entered the apartment rented by JMG in Grozny and, without providing any explanation or a search warrant to the two JMG staff members present, ransacked the building, confiscated mobile phones, several photo cameras, laptop computers, and other electronic equipment. They also conducted body searches of the two JMG staff members and a search of their car. The two members, Sergei Babinets and Dmitry Dimitriev, were held by police for several hours before being released without charge.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the Russian authorities to investigate the suspected arson, ensure protection is provided to JMG staff, and honor Russia’s commitment to foster a normal working climate for human rights defenders.

“This is not the first time the Chechen authorities have unleashed a campaign of harassment against those working to protect human rights in Chechnya,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These latest acts against human rights defenders suggest they are taking it to a new level of abuse.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged Russian authorities to promptly and thoroughly investigate the attacks and threats and hold accountable those responsible.

On December 4, 11 members of an armed group launched an attack against law enforcement officials in central Grozny. In the ensuing fighting, all were killed, along with 14 law enforcement officers and at least one civilian. The following day the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, said the families of the armed group members would be expelled from Chechnya and their houses demolished. Within days, at least nine houses in five different towns were set on fire by unknown men and burnt down. There has been no attempt to investigate these incidents. 

On December 9, Kalyapin, head of the JMG, called on Russian authorities to investigate whether Kadyrov’s call to expel insurgents’ families and destroy their houses would constitute a criminal offence under Article 286 of the Russian Criminal Code “Abuse of authority.” The following day, through his social media account, Kadyrov claimed that “a certain Kalyapin” was assisting insurgents in Chechnya, including by providing them with money.

On December 11, several prominent human rights defenders held a joint press conference in Moscow to highlight the unlawful practice of collective punishment in Chechnya. Kalyapin, one of the speakers, was attacked during the press conference by several men, who shouted abuse and pelted him with eggs. For several days since, Kalyapin has been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages.