Russian authorities should stop harassing a prominent human rights defender in the Northern Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 6, 2015, law enforcement officials in Ingushetia searched the family home of 42-year-old Magomeg Mutsolgov and the office of Mashr, a local human rights organization under his leadership, alleging that Mutsolgov and his group were anti-Russian saboteurs.

Magomed Mutsolgov, Moscow. 

© 2011 Varvara Pakhomenko

“The allegations against Magomeg Mutsolgov and his organization are outrageous and clearly aim to intimidate and demonize him in the public eye,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Early in the morning of November 6, a large group of law enforcement officials arrived in five vehicles outside the courtyard where the house and office are located. Mutsolgov told Human Rights Watch that when he opened the gate he saw about 30 armed uniformed officials, some masked.

They said they were acting on behalf of the Chief Department for Investigation in Russia’s North Caucasus federal district and presented Mutsolgov with a search warrant, which identified him as “a liaison between anti-Russian non-governmental organizations located on the territory of Georgia, the USA, and European countries” and alleged that he carried out “acts of sabotage … to incite inter-religious conflicts in Russia’s North Caucasus federal district.” The document also claimed that Mutsolgov and Mashr carried out “extremist, propagandist, projects … to foster negative public attitude toward the actions by the Russian government with regard to Ukraine, Georgia and Syria.”

Ingushetia has been the focus of a years-long government crackdown on alleged insurgents and suspected extremists. In a report released in 2008, Human Rights Watch documented numerous abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, and acts of torture by law enforcement and security agencies in the republic. Magomeg Mutsolgov lost his brother, Bashir, to an enforced disappearance in 2003. In 2005, Mutsolgov and several other relatives of people who had been forcibly disappeared established Mashr organization to stop torture, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, and other abuses in Ingushetia. Since then, Mashr has grown into one of the leading human rights organizations in the North Caucasus and provides extensive support to victims of abuses and their family members.

The officials spent hours searching Mutsolgov’s family home and office. They seized Mashr’s founding documents, accounting documents, books, reports, letters, copies of victims’ testimony, computers, memory sticks, cameras, and other electronic devices, including those belonging to Mutsolgov’s small children. Mutsolgov said that his elderly mother, who lives with him and his family, collapsed from stress and that the family had to call an ambulance for her.

Hours later, the officials left without providing any information about further steps. Mutsolgov told Human Rights Watch he had no doubt the search was designed by the authorities to punish him for his activism and hinder Mashr’s work. He said that the authorities have been attempting to silence him for years, through threats and unsound legal actions.  

Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders stipulates that states shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection for human rights defenders against “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” related to their efforts to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Russian government should foster a favorable working climate for human rights defenders in the North Caucasus and in the country as a whole, Human Rights Watch said.

“Human rights defenders should be protected, not harassed and intimidated,” Williamson said. “Government attempts to threaten human rights groups with ungrounded allegations and arbitrary searches are unacceptable in a democratic society.”