On Saturday afternoon lawyers for the Committee Against Torture serving with the Joint Mobile Group (JMG) that brings attorneys into Chechnya for short tours of duty, checked the recordings from their outside security cameras and saw that several armed men had been trying to break into their office at the corner of Putin Prospect and Roza Luksemburg Avenue in the capital of Grozny.
The group urgently evacuated its employees. At about 10:00 p.m. human rights defenders heard that their 3-room office and apartment in the very heart of the city was on fire—black smoke coming out of the windows could be seen on multiple pictures posted on social media.
It was a sleepless night in Chechnya for two lawyers from the Russian town of Orenburg, Sergei Babinets and Dmitriy Dimitriyev. They had come to work with the JMG as part of a program developed by human rights campaigners after the murders in 2009 of Natalia Estemirova and others investigating abuses under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s man in Grozny. The idea is for attorneys to rotate in and out of this Russian region where official hostility to their work can have murderous consequences. About 50 lawyers from six other regions take part, operating in shifts.
Babinets and Dimitriyev were sheltered by a visiting television crew in the Hotel Grozny City, Chechen’s most luxurious, but instead of leaving on Sunday morning, they called for Chechen police to investigate who had set fire to their offices. The result: the police detained Babinets and Dimitriyev, searched them, and confiscated all their office equipment, including JMG personal cell phones and laptops.
”In my three years of experience with JMG and multiple trips to Chechnya I have interviewed dozens of people complaining about outrageously illegal police methods in Chechnya,” Babinets told me in an interview at his office on December 6. “We had an applicant from Urus-Martan region, who claimed that out of nine male members of his family he was the only one not detained police.”
The lawyers of JMG believed that civil society is necessary in Chechnya, a republic with deep-rooted issues after years of war and, still, attempts by radical Islamist insurgencies to terrorize a population desperate for peace.
But Chechen leader Kadyrov does not think that Committee Against Torture was needed in Chechnya. A year ago at a public meeting Kadyrov accused the NGO and its JMG lawyers of being “enemies of the Chechen people.” When insurgents launched a major attack in Grozny earlier this month, killing 14 policemen and injuring a dozen more, Kadyrov was furious. He called for the homes of their families to be leveled “to the ground” and their relatives to be exiled from Chechnya. Kadyrov then declared himself to be “the main human rights defender” in Chechnya.
But the situation did not calm down, it escalated. Russian and international human rights defenders found Kadyrov’s statements inappropriate for a federal official. On Tuesday, the head of JMG, Igor Kalyapin, filed a request for a criminal investigation of Kadyrov’s calls for expelling Chechen families. Human Rights Watch confirmed that Kadyrov’s statements were “abuse of authority.” In response, Kadyrov wrote in his social media that “a certain Kalyapin” could be involved in terrorism and passing money to insurgencies in Chechnya.
Several unidentified men threw eggs at Kalyapin when he spoke at a Moscow press conference of five human rights groups including Human Rights Watch last Thursday. On the following day Chechen authorities organized a demonstration of thousands of Chechens in Grozny, demanding “Kalyapin go home!” and “Stop the Lying Activists!’” That was the day that JMG lawyers noticed that they were followed by men in masks.
On Sunday afternoon both Babinets and Dimitriyev were released after several hours of detention. The lawyers decided to stay in Chechnya and demand investigation of illegal actions against them and their office.
As Babinets told us in an interview on December 5, “We are not enemies of the Chechen people, we do an important job: we monitor cases of torture, abductions and unjustified murders, as well as lawlessness by local police.”
The only the protection the group has is its knowledge of the law, grudging respect by a few senior Russian law enforcement officials—and the images recorded by indoor and outdoor web cameras. Those images from the Grozny offices were transferred immediately to colleagues outside Chechnya.
In the meantime, Grozny’s interior ministry has denied it has ever detained JMG lawyers: “Nobody was ever going to detain the human rights defenders of Joint Mobile Group in Grozny. We don’t have any issues with these people, they are not interesting for law enforcement,” a source told RIA.
The JMG office that just a few days ago received victims of human rights abuse is now empty, covered in black ash. Russian civil society demanded authorities investigate who burned the office of the Committee Without Torture and its brave Russian lawyers.