Prominent international rights groups have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to take action following "threats" and "menacing" language deployed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his inner circle against journalists and activists.
Amnesty International and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed deep concern about recent public statements and social media posts by Kadyrov and senior Chechen officials vilifying prominent journalists and Kremlin critics.
"Our research shows that menacing rhetoric against government critics has often been followed by violence, and has encouraged self-censorship among reporters," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in a letter to Putin posted on the organization's website on January 21.
The letter followed a statement by Amnesty a day earlier calling on Russian authorities to "respond to a string of thinly veiled threats against several prominent human rights defenders, media workers, and political activists" by the "political leadership of Chechnya."
"Such threats should not be taken lightly," Amnesty said.
Kadyrov and his allies have unleashed a torrent of hostile rhetoric against liberal politicians, activists, and journalists over the past 10 days. Those targeted included Aleksei Veneditkov, editor in chief of the independent-minded radio station Ekho Moskvy, veteran human rights crusader Lev Ponomaryov, and opposition activist Ilya Yashin.
Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya, a mainly Muslim federal subject in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region, with an iron fist since Putin handed him power there in 2007.
On January 15, he called opponents of Putin "enemies of the people" who should be prosecuted. In an essay published days later by a leading Russian newspaper, he called them "jackals" who must be punished in order to "save" Russia.
Over the past 10 days, Kadyrov's associates have posted videos and photographs on social media that Kremlin critics have interpreted as threats.
These included an Instagram video posted by Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian parliamentarian from Chechnya who is close to Kadyrov, showing himself and other men chanting "Kadyrov is the rock of Russia -- Allah Akhbar!" on a bridge near the one where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in February.
Many of Kadyrov's critics suspect he was behind Nemtsov's slaying. He denies involvement, and efforts by relatives and associates of Nemtsov to have him questioned have been thwarted.
Both CPJ and Amnesty noted reports that the assassinations of journalist and ardent Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Chechen rights activist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 were preceded by threats against the two women.
"We call on you to condemn any attempt to intimidate the press, and ask you to use your status as the guarantor of the Russian Constitution to ensure that state officials respect journalists' constitutional right to criticize the government and state agencies," Simon of CPJ wrote in the letter to Putin.
Amnesty called on Russian authorities to "urgently" protect "those who have been threatened, attacked, and harassed due to their work in defending human rights."
Putin has yet to comment on the barrage of heated language from Kadyrov and his allies.
But his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on January 20 that Kadyrov, in his incendiary essay in the national Izvestia newspaper, was only talking about "nonsystemic" opposition figures who are "outside the legitimate political arena."
It is "necessary to calmly read what has been said," Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.