(Moscow) – A group of unidentified men attacked a defense lawyer on February 4, 2015, in Dagestan, Russia’s turbulent republic in the North Caucasus, causing multiple injuries, Human Rights Watch said today.  

The men assaulted the lawyer, Murad Magomedov, in broad daylight outside the courthouse during a break in hearings in a high-profile terror case in which he is representing one of the defendants. Russian authorities should ensure that the investigation into the attack is thorough and capable of leading to the identification and prosecution of the assailants.

“The violent attack on a defense lawyer right outside the courthouse strongly indicates that the assailants were confident they would get away with it,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a terrible crime against a courageous defense lawyer, and a chilling signal to lawyers like him in Dagestan.”

Magomedov, who also works with the Memorial Human Rights Center’s Dagestan office, is representing one of a group of men charged for the 2012 murder of a prominent Sufi leader, Said Afandi al-Chirkavi (Atsaev). Magomedov told a Memorial representative that during a break in the trial hearings, he stepped outside the courthouse. Five or six men immediately attacked him, breaking his jaw in two places as well as several of his front teeth, and causing serious head trauma.

Caucasian Knot, a media service that provides detailed coverage of developments in the Caucasus, reported that on February 4, 2015, Magomedov was not able to speak with police investigators who came to the hospital to interview him because of his serious head injuries. Magomedov also told the Memorial representative that he could not remember the details of the assault.

Memorial said that Magomedov had received threats that he would be in trouble for his work, although his work on the Afandi case is not related to Memorial.

Russia’s North Caucasus region is the center of an Islamist insurgency, which has been most intense in Dagestan. Afandi was widely recognized as the most prominent Sufi sheikh in the region. He had played an active role in promoting negotiations between Sufi Muslim leaders from the republic’s Spiritual Department of Muslims (DUM), an official agency, and Akhlyu Sunna, an organization of prominent Salafi Muslims, adherents to a literalist trend in Sunni Islam who seek to rid Islam of innovations accrued over the centuries.

Afandi’s killing was one of several factors that led to tougher counterinsurgency tactics broadly targeting Salafis in Dagestan.

Lawyers and human rights advocates in Dagestan face serious threats to their lives and well-being, Human Rights Watch said. Those who defend Salafis or other people targeted in counterinsurgency efforts are especially at risk, as are investigative journalists who expose abuses in counterterrorism operations. In July 2013 two gunmen shot and killed Magomed Guchuchaliev, 46, a lawyer who had defended suspected insurgents. No one has been arrested for his murder. Three days earlier, a gunman shot and killed a Caucasian Knot journalist, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, 53, who had written critical articles over several years about government corruption, fraudulent elections, and human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.

“When defense lawyers are the targets of retribution and violence, this severely weakens the rule of law and sends a message to defendants that they can’t get a fair trial,” Denber said. “Russian authorities should ensure that everyone has equal protection under the law, and a good place to start is to make sure Magomedov’s assailants are brought to justice.”