(Moscow) – Masked men, armed with baseball bats, brutally attacked a group of foreign and Russian journalists and Russian activists documenting human rights abuses on March 9, 2016, in the North Caucasus. A few hours later, masked men raided the office of a nongovernmental organization in the region.
At least 15 men stopped a bus carrying eight people and their driver as the group traveled from Ingushetia to Chechnya and beat them. The group included six journalists – one Norwegian, one Swedish, and four Russian – and two Russian human rights activists. All were injured, and five were hospitalized. The attackers set the bus on fire.
“These brazen attacks on journalists and human rights defenders show how dangerous it is to report on human rights abuses in the North Caucasus,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher. “The authorities have made no meaningful attempt to prevent or investigate the repeated attacks in the North Caucasus on people who criticize the government.”
At about 10 p.m., a few hours after the attack on the bus, several masked men – some in civilian clothing and others in camouflage, armed with automatic weapons – stormed the Ingushetia office of the Joint Mobile Group, created by the Russian nongovernmental organization called the Committee for Prevention of Torture and other Russian human rights organizations in 2009, following a wave of killing of activists in the region. Employees of the organization saw the raid on security cameras. They have not been able to enter the office to assess the situation.
The Russian authorities should immediately carry out an investigation into these two attacks, identify those responsible, and bring them to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
The journalists and activists were on a week-long trip organized by the Committee for Prevention of Torture, the Russian nongovernmental group, to report on human rights in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Sergei Romanov, a lawyer with the committee who was in touch with his colleagues during and after the incident, said that the group had noticed they were under surveillance by people whose identities they did not know from the beginning of the trip, on March 7.
Those attacked included Ivan Zhiltsov and Ekaterina Vanslova, employees of the Committee for Prevention of Torture; Oeystein Windstad, a correspondent for Norway’s Ny Tid newspaper; Lena Maria Persson Loefgren, a Swedish state radio journalist; and four Russian journalists: Aleksandra Elagina of The New Times, Egor Skovoroda of Mediazona, and freelance journalists Anton Prusakov and Mikhail Solunin.
Romanov said that on the evening of March 9, as the group traveled by bus from Ingushetia to Grozny, the Chechnya capital, three cars carrying the assailants blocked the road, forcing the bus to stop. The masked men dragged the passengers out of the bus and kicked and beat them. One of the victims told Romanov that the attackers called the activists and journalists “terrorists” who would “not be allowed to work on our land.” The attackers poured gasoline on the bus and set it afire, destroying the journalists’ equipment and some of the victims’ identification documents.
Romanov said that among the passengers’ injuries were a possible broken nose and a leg injury. Five of the victims, including the driver, were taken to the Sunzhenskaya district central hospital in Ingushetia. Ingush law enforcement dispatched to the scene took the others to the Sunzhenski district police station for questioning.
The attack was the third on Joint Mobile Group staff and offices in the North Caucasus. On June 3, 2015, unidentified people in masks forced their way into the organization’s office in Grozny, destroying the contents of the office and forcing its staff out. On December 13, 2014, unidentified attackers set fire to the office. The next day, Chechen police without a warrant ransacked the office and took mobile phones, several cameras, laptop computers, and other electronic equipment. They also conducted body searches of the two Joint Mobile Group employees who worked there and searched their car. No one has been held accountable for these attacks.
“The lack of accountability for attacks against activists doing legitimate human rights work has paved the way for even more violence against those standing up for victims of abuses in the North Caucasus,” Cooper said. “Any delay in investigating this attack and prosecuting those responsible risks creating carte blanche for more violence against reporters and human rights activists in an already volatile region.”