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(Moscow) – The speaker of Chechnya’s parliament has made serious threats against Gregory Shvedov, the editor of a critical online media outlet, placing him at great risk, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should publicly condemn these threats, ensure that no harm comes to Shvedov, and put an end to threats against and attacks on independent media in Chechnya.

On January 4, 2017, Magomed Daudov, the parliament speaker, publicly threatened Shvedov, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Knot. The prominent Russian media portal’s coverage of current developments in the Caucasus includes extensive reporting on abuses by Chechen authorities. Daudov is widely known as the right-hand man of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic.

“The threats by the speaker of the parliament, Chechnya’s leading politician, are clearly meant to intimidate the Caucasian Knot team and hinder their dedicated reporting on egregious abuses by Chechen officials,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch.

Gregory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of critical media outlet Caucasian Knot. © 2016 RFE/RL

On his Instagram account, Daudov mockingly described Shvedov as a “mongrel dog… Shved” and threatened to “tame his tongue to a standard size” and “pull his wisdom teeth out.” He titled the designated post “How to untie the Caucasian Knot?

On January 9, Shvedov filed a complaint against Daudov with Russia’s chief investigative agency for “impeding legitimate and professional work of the press,” a criminal offense under Russian law. Shvedov emphasized that he viewed Daudov’s remarks as a direct threat not only against him, but also against all journalists working in the North Caucasus. Chechnya’s human rights commissioner, Nurdi Nukhajiev, who has a record of promoting the interests and public image of the Chechen leadership, immediately accused Shvedov of using the situation to promote his “scandalous internet publication.”

Notably, last year Daudov posted to his Instagram account a photograph of Kadyrov with a fierce Caucasian sheepdog, and wrote that the dog’s “fangs are itching” for opposition activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. He provided disparaging descriptions of several people the Chechen leadership apparently thought particularly irritating, portraying them as dogs. Approximately two months later, a group of mobsters who appear to be acting as Chechen authorities’ proxies physically attacked one of those people, a prominent Russian human rights defender, when he was in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on a work trip.

On January 10, a group of leading Russian activists issued a joint statement in support of Shvedov. In the statement, they say that the Kremlin’s systematic disregard of threats and abuses by the Chechen leadership perpetuates impunity, call for a prompt and effective investigation into the threats against Shvedov, and press for resolute measures to provide a safe environment for journalists and human rights defenders in the North Caucasus.

“Russian authorities should make it clear to Chechnya’s leadership that attacks on and threats against journalists and other independent critics will not be tolerated,” Lokshina said.

During the past year, there have been numerous severe attacks on independent journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya. In March 2016, a group of masked men believed to be Chechen officials’ proxies attacked a minibus carrying Russian and foreign journalists traveling to Chechnya, beat the journalists, and burned the bus. The following week, thugs apparently acting as Chechen authorities’ proxies physically attacked activists, who were with the Joint Mobile Group for Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya, and ransacked their Grozny office.

In May, Chechen police arbitrarily detained and threatened a Russian journalist researching a punitive house-burning. In September, following an unfair trial, a Chechnya court sentenced a 23-year-old local journalist, Zhalaudi Geriev, to three years in prison on fabricated drug possession charges, apparently in retaliation for his work for Caucasian Knot. Geriev is currently serving his sentence.

Russia’s leadership should publicly condemn Daudov’s actions, ensure an effective investigation into Shvedov’s complaint, and guarantee safe working conditions for journalists in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said.

“The authorities have already fabricated a criminal case against a young local journalist to punish him for his work for the Caucasian Knot, and now the right-hand man of Chechnya’s ruthless strongman is going after the editor,” Lokshina said. “The Russian authorities at the highest level should end this.”

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