Late yesterday afternoon, five burly men in dark clothing and face masks forced their way into the office of Memorial Human Rights Center in Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest city, and pelted the staff with eggs screaming, “This is [for supporting] Kalyapin!”
Igor Kalyapin is head of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian human rights organizations in Chechnya. In December, he filed a complaint with Russia’s investigative authorities regarding the public threat by the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to expel relatives of insurgents and burn their homes to the ground (It was no empty threat: eventually about a dozen homes were torched). A few days later, several Kadyrov supporters pelted Kalyapin, among others, with eggs at a news conference that Human Rights Watch was holding with several other Russian human rights groups to shed light on collective punishment practices in Chechnya. Soon after, unidentified people torched the office of the Joint Mobile Group in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, destroying it.
Like Human Rights Watch, Memorial has publicly supported Kalypin and his team and raised the issue with the media and the Russian authorities. So it’s no wonder that its vulnerable staff in the region are being punished for the organization’s principled position. Only two women were in the Memorial’s local office when the assailants, some of whom were armed, broke in. Faced with this group of masked strangers, the women could only expect the worst, especially with the memory of the brazen and still unpunished murder of their colleague Natalia Estemirova in 2009 still so fresh. But they were assaulted with eggs, not bullets.
After the news conference was attacked in December, Kalyapin said, “I can deal with eggs, but what if my colleagues in Chechnya will be pelted with grenades tomorrow?” Two days later, their Grozny office was set ablaze.
Indeed, this week’s revolting attack at Memorial’s office was apparently not only an attempt to intimidate the staff but also a warning. The activists felt the assailants were sending them a signal: If you continue with your work, something much more serious could happen next time we come for you. Egg throwing today, maybe arson tomorrow. And if you don’t yield then, who knows what comes next?