Masked assailants attack journalist, lawyer in Russia’s Chechnya province

Speaking from a hospital bed in a video, Milashina said the attack looked like a “classic abduction.”
Novaya Gazeta...(Photo | AP)
Novaya Gazeta...(Photo | AP)

MOSCOW: Masked assailants in the Russian province of Chechnya attacked and brutally beat a prominent investigative reporter and a lawyer on Tuesday, an assault that highlighted a violent pattern of rampant human rights abuses in the region.

Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina and lawyer Alexander Nemov had just arrived in Chechnya to attend the trial of Zarema Musayeva, the mother of two local activists who have challenged Chechen authorities.

Just outside the airport, their vehicle was blocked by several cars and they were attacked by several unidentified masked assailants who beat them with clubs, put guns to their heads and broke their equipment.

Novaya Gazeta said that Milashina sustained a brain injury and had several fingers broken, and Nemov had a deep cut on his leg. They were taken to a hospital in Chechnya’s main city, Grozny, and later to Beslan in the nearby region of North Ossetia. The newspaper said that Milashina repeatedly lost consciousness.

Speaking from a hospital bed in a video, Milashina said the attack looked like a “classic abduction.”

“They threw the driver out of the car, got in, bent our heads down, tied my hands, forced me down to my knees and put a gun to my head,” she said, adding that the assailants were visibly nervous and had trouble tying her hands.

A photo from a hospital showed her talking over the phone, with green antiseptic covering her face and multiple bruises on her shaven head.

Officials were considering their medical evacuation to Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed about the incident. Peskov added that “it was a very serious assault that warrants energetic measures” from law enforcement agencies.

Russian human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova asked investigators to look into the attack on Milashina and Nemov.

The Russian Ministry for Digital Development and Mass Communications denounced the “monstrous assault” on Milashina and Nemov and said it will offer them the necessary assistance. The ministry added that it urged law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the attack and punish the perpetrators.

Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, the country’s top state criminal investigation agency, ordered a probe into the attack.

The strong statements and a quick response from Russian authorities contrasted with a muted official reaction to previous attacks on Milashina and other journalists and human rights activists who have exposed human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Milashina has long exposed human rights violations in Chechnya and has faced threats, intimidation and attacks. In 2020, Milashina and a lawyer accompanying her were beaten by a dozen people in the lobby of their hotel. Last year, she temporarily left Russia after she was threatened by Chechen authorities.

She has won a broad acclaim for her investigative reporting, which included exposing the torture and killings of gay people in Chechnya and other abuses by feared Chechen paramilitary forces.

In 2013, Milashina received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State.

Hours after Tuesday’s attack on Milashina and Nemov, a court in Grozny sentenced Zarema Musayeva to 5½ years in prison on charges of insulting and violently resisting police, an accusation that rights groups have rejected as trumped-up.

Musayeva had been in custody in Grozny since Chechen security forces grabbed her from her home in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod and drove her to Chechnya in January 2022. Her husband, a former judge, and her two activist sons have left Chechnya. Chechnya’s strongman regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has accused the Musayev family of having terrorist links and said that they should be imprisoned or killed.

The Kremlin has relied on Kadyrov to keep the North Caucasus region stable after two devastating separatist wars. International rights groups have accused Kadyrov’s feared security forces of extrajudicial killings, torture and abductions of dissenters, but Russian authorities have stonewalled repeated demands to end abuses in Chechnya.

Kadyrov’s clout has risen since the start of Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine, where his security forces have taken active part. The Kremlin scrambled fighters from Chechnya to help protect Moscow from an abortive mutiny launched by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin 11 days ago, but some commentators warned that Kadyrov’s ambitions could also potentially pose a threat to federal authorities.

Despite the Kremlin’s support, Kadyrov reportedly has had tense relations with some of Russia’s law enforcement agencies. The angry reaction from officials and Kremlin-connected lawmakers could signal authorities’ intentions to cut the Chechen strongman down to size.

Andrei Klishas, head of the constitutional affairs committee in the upper house, said that the attack on Milashina and Nemov warrants a “tough response” from the law enforcement agencies, and another senior lawmaker, Alexander Khinshtein, denounced it as “criminal” and urged prosecutors to prioritize the case.

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