Two weeks ago, Madina Umaeva, 23, died in Russia’s Chechen Republic under suspicious circumstances. She had previously complained to family members about her husband repeatedly beating her. On the day she died, neighbors heard screams from her house and said Madina’s mother-in-law chased away a neighbor who saw Madina lying on the ground in the yard, claiming it was “nothing but theatrics.”
Madina’s in-laws buried her in the middle of the night and insisted she suffered a lethal fall down the stairs during an epileptic seizure, though her mother says she didn’t have epilepsy. Appalled by the overnight burial and the neighbors’ reports of a family row, she and other family members spoke to the media and demanded accountability. Madina’s cousin said the young woman described her husband as becoming “unruly, crazed like an animal” during beatings, and although she attempted to leave him, “She came back every time because of [their three] children.” Chechen traditional laws, often upheld by local authorities even when contravening Russia’s laws and international human rights standards, stipulate that children belong with the father and his family. This often dissuades women from fleeing abusive marriages.
Public outcry following Madina’s death pushed the local prosecutor’s office to open an inquest. On June 20, authorities exhumed her body. It seemed that justice was on the way, until Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, intervened.
At a June 23 meeting broadcast on Chechnya’s official television channel, Kadyrov accused Madina’s mother of spreading gossip about her daughter’s death. Although the exhumation findings have not been made public, he said it showed no evidence of a violent death. He expressed his indignation that an exhumation was even done, insisting it ran contrary to Islam and the Chechen authorities’ efforts to ensure that “When Chechens die, there is no autopsy.” Dismissing beatings as something that “can happen” in a marriage, he demanded Madina’s mother prove her daughter was in fact killed and present witnesses. Appearing distressed and frightened, Madina’s mother said on camera, “I apologize for having listened to rumors. I apologize to [you].”
Public humiliation of people who speak out isn’t new in Chechnya, but these circumstances were especially egregious. And they will block badly needed justice for a victim of domestic violence and reinforce a dangerous message that those seeking redress for abuse should stay silent. Russian authorities have an obligation to ensure women are safe from violence, including in their homes.