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In North Caucasus, Lawyers 'Under Attack'

Daghestani lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova in June 2010, shortly after she was beaten and detained by police officers.
Daghestani lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova in June 2010, shortly after she was beaten and detained by police officers.
Sapiyat Magomedova says a brutal assault by police three years ago, despite leaving her deeply shaken, has not broken her resolve to work as a lawyer in Russia's troubled North Caucasus.

In 2010, police officers assaulted her as she tried to visit a client detained at a police station in her native Daghestan, painfully twisting her arms before hurling her out of the building.

She says her attempt to retrieve her documents and mobile phone, dropped during the incident, only sparked more violence.

"They grabbed me from each side and threw me to the ground," Magomedova says, adding that she sustained numerous cuts and bruises in addition to a wound to her chin. She briefly lost consciousness and, when she came to, she says, "I asked the officers to give me their names and said I would file a complaint. As a result, one of their bosses grabbed me by the hair and ordered them to take me back inside."

The young lawyer was then locked in a detention cell along with her client. She spent several hours there before being rescued by a colleague.

Routine Abuses

Magomedova's ordeal is sadly common in the North Caucasus, where two decades of war pitting Moscow against Chechen militants has spawned rampant violence and lawlessness.

Amnesty International has sounded the alarm in a new report highlighting the dangers that law-enforcement agencies continue to pose to lawyers combating rights abuses in the region.

The report says lawyers are routinely intimidated, threatened, and -- like Magomedova -- sometimes subjected to physical assaults.

"It is incredibly difficult to confront authorities there, and this is what lawyers have to do as part of their professional duties," Denis Kryvosheev, an Amnesty International researcher who worked on the report, tells RFE/RL. "Professionally, they do nothing but stand up in court to defend people accused of membership in armed groups or other crimes and legally challenge authorities over human rights violations that their clients have faced. They confront a very powerful system and this system does not like being confronted."

Like other rights watchdogs, Amnesty accuses law-enforcement officials in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia of frequently using torture to secure confessions. Allegations of enforced disappearances and executions are also common.

Cycle Of Violence

Lawyers who denounce police abuses, Amnesty notes in its report, "are often seen as a hindrance to the administration of justice, rather than crucial guarantors of it."

The report cites the case of a lawyer in Kabardino-Balkaria who was badly injured in a December 2011 car accident involving police. Police failed to investigate the crash, although the lawyer had been receiving death threats.

The violence culminated last year with the killing of Daghestani lawyer Umar Saidmagomedov by local security officials. Authorities alleged the victim belonged to an armed group.

But Saidmagomedov's colleagues believe that he was unlawfully executed and, as Amnesty points out, "themselves face harassment in connection with their attempts to uncover the truth."

Kryvosheev says rights violations against lawyers must be punished in order to break the cycle of violence in the North Caucasus.

"Russian authorities must stop human-rights violations in the region. But they must also ensure that lawyers are free to discharge their professional duties," Kryvosheev says. "Lawyers will continue to confront the system, but they have to do so safe in the knowledge that they are not risking their lives or the lives of their relatives. All past violations of lawyers' rights must be investigated impartially and effectively."

Cases Closed

Magomedova, too, has been unable to seek redress.

One day after she filed a complaint against the police officers who assaulted her, the officers filed a countersuit in which they accused her of attacking and insulting them.

Authorities eventually closed both cases.

Magomedova has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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