Alleged pro-Russian forces in Chechnya have abducted a Chechen human rights defender, Makhmut Magomadov, Human Rights Watch said today. The abduction follows raids in recent weeks by Russian law enforcement on two human rights groups that work on Chechnya.

At about 6:30 p.m. on January 20, a group of armed men in camouflage uniforms seized Magomadov, a 49-year-old lawyer, at the home of a friend in Grozny and drove him away toward the center of town. According to a witness, the armed men spoke Chechen and refused to identify themselves.

Witnesses believe the armed men who abducted Magomadov belong to the pro-Russian Chechen armed forces, known as the “kadyrovtsy” after their commander, Chechnya’s deputy prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Witnesses could not positively identify the armed men because their uniforms had no identifying insignia, but it is unlikely that they were rebel fighters, since the rebels cannot operate openly and in large numbers in Grozny without attracting fire from Russian troops. Magomadov’s whereabouts remain unknown.

In the past few years, thousands of other Chechens have been abducted by Russian and pro-Russian Chechen forces under similar circumstances. Many of them have since “disappeared” and, in some cases, relatives have recovered their corpses from unmarked graves. On December 10, 2004, Russia’s human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin announced that a total of 1,700 people had “disappeared” in Chechnya in 2004.

“Magomadov is at great risk of torture, execution and ‘disappearance,’” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian government must act immediately to find and protect him.”

Since 2000, Magomadov has worked as a legal expert for several human rights organizations including the International Helsinki Federation, the International Protection Center and the Chechnya Committee of National Salvation. He helped several victims of human rights abuses bring their cases before the European Court on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, Magomadov headed a special, official task force to fight kidnappings in Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch researchers have met with Magomadov on numerous occasions and highly value his work. Recently, Magomadov worked on cases of enforced disappearances that were believed to have been committed by the “kadyrovtsy.”

“Magomadov had been tracking abuse by a group of armed forces in Chechnya that can operate with total impunity,” said Denber. “Tragically, he may now have become a victim of these same armed forces.”

The abduction of Mahmut Magomadov takes place in the context of increasing governmental pressure on local human rights organizations working on Chechnya. On January 12, a group of Russian special police armed with machine guns raided the Nazran office of the Information Center in Ingushetia, a nongovernmental organization that gathers and distributes information about human rights violations in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Under the pretext that a group of rebels were hiding in its office, police ransacked the premises and confiscated two computers.

On January 20, Federal Security Service officers questioned Stanislav Dmitrievskii of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society about a newspaper on human rights in Chechnya that his organization publishes. They subsequently searched the organization’s offices and confiscated some documents. The officers suggested the organization had violated Russian law by publishing interviews with rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev.