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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov attends a ceremony to open a bank branch in Grozny in February.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has called on Russian authorities to secure the safety of journalists and their relatives in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya after the Kremlin-installed leader of the area openly threatened the broadcaster's North Caucasus Service chief, Aslan Doukaev.

Ramzan Kadyrov threatened Doukaev while discussing an RFE/RL article challenging the Chechen authorities' policies toward farmers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a video posted on YouTube on April 1, Kadyrov uses vulgar words during a discussion with several members of his government, cursing the author of the article and threatening to punish him "to the full extent."

A screengrab from Kadyrov's April 1 video.
A screengrab from Kadyrov's April 1 video.

Kadyrov also addresses Doukaev in the video, saying he will make him "crawl on your knees begging our people for forgiveness!"

"Direct threats by regional leaders against journalists, most recently RFE/RL's Aslan Doukaev, are a dangerous trend at a moment when our audiences need access to objective news and information more than ever, " RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement on April 21.

"For decades, RFE/RL has provided Chechens and others across the North Caucasus with reliable reporting despite the risks for journalists in the region.... Russian authorities must uphold their obligations to ensure the safety and security of journalists and their families, including those like Aslan providing this important service for the Chechen people," he added.

Rights groups say Kadyrov, who has ruled the volatile region since 2007, uses repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in the region. They allege Kadyrov is ultimately responsible for the violence and intimidation of political opponents by Chechen authorities, including kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.

Kremlin critics say President Vladimir Putin has turned a blind eye to the alleged abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution by Kadyrov because he relies on the former rebel commander to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

Last week, Russian independent newspaper Novaya gazeta took down an article about measures introduced to tackle the coronavirus in Chechnya following a request by Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor.

The move came after Kadyrov had slammed the article as "absurd" and threatened to harm the author, Yelena Milashina, who is widely known for her investigative reports about the dire human rights situation in Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch said on April 21 that Russian authorities should take the threat "seriously" and "ensure" Milashina's safety.

"The Kremlin's dismissive reaction to this serious threat against Novaya gazeta is simply unacceptable and dangerous," said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Kadyrov asked for a signal and this is like a stark green light to Chechen officials to act on their threats," she added.

Milashina has been a target of threats by Chechen authorities since exposing their anti-gay "purge" in spring 2017.

In February 2020, a group of attackers beat Milashina and human rights lawyer Marina Dubrovina in Grozny, the regional capital.

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service is one of the few independent media outlets reporting in Russia’s predominantly Muslim Chechnya and other regions of the North Caucasus.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe sits at her parents' home in Iran on March 17 after being released.

Iran says it has released temporarily more than 1,000 foreign prisoners due to the coronavirus outbreak, following criticism by UN human rights experts.

"What Iran has done in guaranteeing prisoners' health and granting furlough to them is a significant move" compared with what other countries have done, said Gholamhossein Esmaili, a spokesman for the country's judiciary.

British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was among 100,000 prisoners temporarily released last month, had her leave extended until May 20, her lawyer, Tulip Siddiq, said on April 21.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was serving a five-year jail term for sedition after being arrested in 2016 during a holiday on the accusation that she was plotting to overthrow the government.

Her family says she was in Iran to visit relatives and denied that she was plotting against Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency.

Tehran's announcement on April 21 came after a panel of UN human rights experts last week urged the expansion of the list of prisoners temporarily released over the COVID-19 outbreak to include "prisoners of conscience and dual and foreign nationals."

The 100,000 -- mainly Iranian -- prisoners released temporarily last month were freed initially until April 19. Authorities then extended their furlough until May 20.

Foreign prisoners including French-Iranian Fariba Adelkhah and Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father, Mohammad Bagher Namazi, are believed to still be in detention.

Iran has been struggling to contain one of the world's worst outbreaks of the coronavirus since reporting its first cases on February 19.

On April 21, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur announced 88 more deaths over the past 24 hours, bringing the total to almost 5,300 out of a total of more than 83,500 people confirmed as infected.

Many analysts, however, say the true number may be higher due to poor reporting methods, the government's lack of transparency, and a lack of testing.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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