The Russian daily Novaya Gazeta has denied reports that one of its journalists fled Chechnya after receiving threats to her life related to her investigative reporting in the North Caucasus republic.
Award-winning journalist Yelena Milashina has been reporting on an alleged forced marriage involving a teenage Chechen girl and a married local police commander. On May 14, Novaya Gazeta reported that Milashina had been stopped by Chechen police, told about the great attention being paid to her work, and advised to look out for her personal safety.
Later that day, various media reported that Novaya Gazeta had pulled her off her special assignment in Chechnya because of threats to her life. But on May 15 the daily issued a statement specifically denying that Milashina had left Chechnya due to threats, but had left because "she urgently needed to be in Moscow."
The statement added that details relating to her continuing investigation into purported wedding plans involving Chechen police chief, Nazhud Guchigov, and the 17-year-old girl will be published upon Milashina's return to the office.
She has reported that Guchigov has threatened reprisals against the family of the 17-year-old girl, whose name RFE/RL has chosen not to reveal, if she was not handed over for him to marry.
Polygamy, bride-snatching, and underage marriage are illegal in Russia, and the story of an older (Guchigov's age has been reported as both 57 and 46), already married man potentially forcing an underage girl to marry him has attracted attention at the highest levels of the Chechen and Russian governments. It has also raised concerns among human rights activists and led to suggestions that the allegations against Guchigov are the result of a politically-motivated smear campaign.
The reports emerged in late April, when Milashina wrote that residents of a Chechen village told her that the teenager's family had been threatened by Guchigov, who demanded the girl to be given to him as a second wife.
The local police chief told Novaya Gazeta in early May that the information was false, that he did not know and had never seen the girl in question, and was a happily married man.
But the story blew up when, on May 5, Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov publicly confirmed the planned marriage at the government's session, saying the girl's family had given its consent.
'Let's Not Be Prudes...'
Russia's presidential envoy for human rights, Ella Pamfilova, subsequently called on Kadyrov to stop the marriage, sparking a debate over whether the 17-year-old girl was of legal marriage age.
On May 14, Russia's children rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov weighed in on the issue during an interview with the Moscow-based radio station Russian News Service.
He argued that, while 18 is the legal marriage age in most of Russia, the country's Family Code allows exceptions for certain regions. He listed Chechnya among the exceptions, with a legal marriage age of 17.
"Let's not be prudes, emancipation and sexual maturity happen earlier in the Caucasus," he said. "There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look like they're 50."
Chechnya's Children's Ombudsman Khamzat Khirakhmatov, meanwhile, told Govorit Moskva radio recently that the story was fabricated and was potentially politically motivated.
"To my mind, that is somebody's order to hurt the police chief. People are just laughing," Khirakhmatov told the Moscow-based station. "There are no facts; nobody is going to get married. The girl has just graduated from secondary school and is getting ready for final exams."
For his part, Chechen leader Kadyrov is sticking to the love story.
On May 14, he posted famous lines from Alekander Pushkin's Eugen Onegin on his Instagram account. "Love conquers all," he wrote, claiming again that "the girl's parents gave their blessing to this marriage" and saying that the wedding would be held in June.
With reporting by Interfax and Novaya Gazeta