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Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a man in his 50s from a mountain village in Chechnya, is on the run once again and high-level Chechen officials are out to get him.

Dzhalaldinov wants Russian federal authorities to protect him and his family and hold the officials persecuting him to account. That’s what he said on Friday, December 9, at a news conference in Moscow hosted by Novaya Gazeta, a leading Russian independent paper, Memorial, one of Russia’s most prominent rights groups, and Human Rights Watch. The threats to Dzhalaldinov’s life are so grave that the news conference was by invitation only, and the invited journalists received the details about the place only a few hours in advance.

Ramazan Dzhalaldinov and Elena Milashina, December 9, 2016, Moscow @ Tanya Lokshina for Human Rights Watch

Dzhalaldinov’s ordeal started in April, when he recorded a video message timed to coincide with Vladimir Putin’s annual televised call-in show. In the video, which was then widely shared online, he complained that Kenkhi, his village in Chechnya’s remote Sharoi region, had suffered huge damage and was in ruins as a result of the Chechen wars and seasonal landslides. He accused local officials of embezzling the funds allocated for the village’s reconstruction.

Dzhalaldinov knew that Chechen authorities viciously retaliate against their critics, so after his video message was widely shared, he fled Kenkhi for neighboring Dagestan. His wife and three daughters stayed in Kenkhi because he assumed the authorities would not harm a woman and children. But he assumed wrong. Local officials beat his wife and eldest daughter, age 17, and threatened to kill them in an effort to force them to persuade the man of the family to retract his critical comments. Then they drove all four to the border with Dagestan, ordering them to leave Chechnya. That same night, their home was torched.

Several weeks later, Dzhalaldinov received a message from high-level Chechen officials that if he publicly renounced his statement, he would be able to return to Chechnya with his family and receive compensation for his destroyed property. He also received assurances that the Chechen authorities at the highest level had made Kenkhi’s reconstruction a priority and that the village would be soon thriving. He gave in and recorded another video message saying his previous one had been “a mistake” and apologizing to Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless head of Chechnya.

Dzhalaldinov hoped it was all sorted out. He returned to Kenkhi and to his great joy, some reconstruction work had actually begun there. However, that work was suspended – and he did not receive the compensation for his destroyed housing. Dzhalaldinov wanted to see Kadyrov personally, or explain the situation to him but he could not get access. He started gathering photographic evidence of the abandoned reconstruction project and discussed the issue off the record with a few friendly journalists. But local police official who had kept him under close surveillance moved in to curtail his “subversive” activity. 

On November 2, local police came for Dzhalaldinov and his wife and forcibly took them to Grozny, the capital, where Chechnya’s deputy minister for internal affairs, Apti Alautdinov, was waiting for them. Dzhalaldinov said that the deputy minister berated him for maintaining contacts with Elena Milashina, a Moscow-based journalist from Novaya Gazeta well known for her reporting on rights abuses in Chechnya. Alautdinov reminded Dzhalaldinov about Anna PolitkovskayaNovaya Gazeta’s star journalist and a hero for ordinary Chechens, murdered in 2006, and Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian pro-democracy politician murdered in 2015, said that “Milashina’s turn is coming up”, and warned Dzhalaldinov to keep silent if he wanted to live.

In the evening, police officials drove Dzhaladinov and his wife back to Kenkhi, showering them with more threats and confiscating Dzhalaldinov’s passport, apparently to prevent him from leaving Chechnya. Dzhalaldinov fled at dawn, without documents, crossing into Dagestan through the mountains, a precarious and exhausting trip, which his wife and kids could not manage. Once in Dagestan, he contacted Novaya Gazeta and several leading human rights organizations asking for help. His family remains in Chechnya and cannot get out because the regular road out of the village is tightly controlled by Chechen law enforcement officials.

At Friday’s news conference, the assembled journalists recorded Dzhalaldinov’s story and watched him sign a complaint addressed to the head of Russian’s chief investigation agency, detailing the circumstances of the case and asking the agency to investigate the Chechen officials’ actions. Moscow now has the duty to ensure that justice is done.

For close to a decade, Kadyrov has steadily tried to eradicate all forms of dissent and gradually built a tyranny within Chechnya. Repression against local residents became particularly vicious during the past 18 months, with even the mildest critics brutally punished through abduction-style detentions, public humiliation, torture, enforced disappearances, and retaliation against family members. Dzhalaldinov is only one of the many victims of this staggering, lawless crackdown.

Chechnya is an administrative unit of the Russian Federation, and Russia’s authorities are duty bound to uphold the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in Russia’s domestic legislation and international human rights obligations.

Russia’s leadership is clearly aware of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights, including freedom of expression. But until now, it has done little more than issue rare words of concern. This has to change — and to begin with, federal officials need to guarantee the safety of Dzhalaldinov and his family, carry out an effective investigation into what has been inflicted on them, and make sure that those behind it are held to account.

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