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Umarali Nazarov was five months old when he died. The cause of his death is unknown. What is known is that he died separated from his family in a hospital in St Petersburg, less than 24 hours after police tore him from the arms of his mother, 21-year-old Zarina Yunusova, a migrant from Tajikistan.

Mobile phone image of Umarali Nazarov © Elena Lukyanova / "Novaya Gazeta in Saint-Petersburg", October 2015

On October 13, migration officials inspected the building where Yunusova and several of her family members had been staying for around four months. They had no lease, they paid rent “under the table,” and Russian migration authorities frequently raid alleged dwellings of irregular migrants. So, it’s no wonder that the officials eventually showed up.

As Zarina did not have identification documents on her, it’s also not surprising that they took her and Umarli to the police station. What is incomprehensible, however, is that police took her five-month-old baby away from her. They would not let her hold or feed him. At noon, they just handed Umarali over to a children’s affairs police inspector.  About 90 minutes later, an ambulance reportedly drove up to the police station, picked up Umarali and drove away. Zarina knew nothing about it – no one told her.

The police held Zarina for several hours. Later that day, after a relative showed up with her passport and the baby’s documents, the police took her to court for an administrative hearing. All the while, she had no idea where her baby was.

That evening, the court released Yunusova after fining her for violating migration regulations and ordering her to leave the country within 15 days. Police told her Umarali was at a hospital, or rather a social and medical rehabilitation center for children. She rushed there, but hospital security would not let her in as it was past visiting hours. The security guards told her to return the next day.

But early in the morning her family received a phone call from a hospital official, saying that Umarali died, and they could pick up the body.

Russia hosts millions of migrants a year, and they’re often subject to abuse. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases, but this one stands out for its stark brutality.

It is not known when and how Umarali died. An investigation is currently underway. Russian media have quoted the authorities' preliminary report indicating that the death could have been caused by “a respiratory viral infection.” Whether it’s true remains to be seen. With the growing media outcry and numerous public petitions to investigative authorities, some light is bound to be shed on the circumstances of the baby’s death.

Even if every last detail emerges, however, what will forever be etched in the public mind is that Russian authorities unjustifiably separated a baby from his mother, gave her no information for almost a full day, and then told her family to retrieve the body.

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