Office of rights group in Russia's North Caucasus torched

AP News
Posted: Jan 17, 2018 7:38 AM
Office of rights group in Russia's North Caucasus torched

MOSCOW (AP) — Masked attackers on Wednesday torched the office of the prominent Russian rights group Memorial in the region of Ingushetia, the latest escalation of tensions between the activists and officials in the North Caucasus.

The arson attack that Memorial said happened in the early hours came a week after the chief of the group's branch in neighboring Chechnya was detained on suspicion of drug possession. The man's arrest has been widely regarded as a payoff by Chechen authorities for Memorial's work exposing rampant rights abuses in the region that saw two separatist wars in the 1990s.

Oleg Orlov, chief of Memorial's North Caucasus research, told The Associated Press he believes the attack is linked to the crackdown on the activists' work in Chechnya.

"I have no other theories: the only place we have tense relations with in the region is Chechnya," Orlov said by the phone from the Ingush capital, Nazran.

Orlov said Memorial, which also investigates rights abuse in Ingushetia, does not encounter hostility from authorities there like it does in Chechnya.

Ingushetia's leader, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, earlier on Wednesday met with Orlov and other activists and assured them of his support in conducting a fair probe, Orlov said.

Repression against government critics and rights advocates has often spilled over from Chechnya to neighboring Ingushetia, where Chechen operatives have been known to have a free hand.

A long-time Memorial activist in Chechnya, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped in 2010, and her body was found in Ingushetia. In 2016, a group of journalists traveling to Chechnya was attacked near the border between the two regions. Neither incident has been solved.

The attack on Memorial's office in Nazran came a week after Oyub Titiyev, chief of the group's branch in Chechnya, was arrested for drug possession. Police said marijuana was found in the car of the 60-year old activist after he was stopped by police. Memorial has described Titiyev's arrest as an attempt to muffle a rare critic of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday denied suggestions of a possible link between the crackdown on Memorial in Chechnya and Wednesday's arson attack in Ingushetia, saying the two incidents happened in two different regions.

Memorial has been a source for reports of enforced disappearances, torture and collective punishment perpetrated in Chechnya under Kadyrov. Local authorities have dismissed Memorial as an enemy, paid for by the West to smear the local government.

Orlov said he and some other Moscow-based activists have been staying in Ingushetia since late last week, traveling to Chechnya every day to work on the Titiyev case. Orlov said Memorial's car had been consistently followed and stopped by the police in Chechnya.