The Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatovic, issued a statement on August 4 calling for a thorough investigation into the death of Kabardian journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev.
Kuashev was found dead near his home in Khasanya, south-west of Nalchik, on August 1, having disappeared after leaving home the previous evening. His body showed no signs of violence, but his friends and colleagues dispute the findings of an autopsy that concluded he died of heart failure. They are convinced he was killed, possibly by an injection of poison.
Whatever the circumstances, Kuashev's death is an embarrassment for acting Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) head Yury Kokov, who has still to be confirmed in that post by the new parliament to be elected on September 14. Kuashev had intended to run in that ballot as a candidate for the opposition party Yabloko.
Two Yabloko members staged a picket outside the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic representation in Moscow on August 4 to demand clarification of the circumstances of Kuashev's death, and Yabloko head Sergei Mitrokhin has appealed to Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin to open a criminal investigation.
Kuashev, 26, graduated from a Moscow law school in 2010 with a degree in criminal law. He then returned to Nalchik, where he sought to promote interconfessional dialogue and defend the rights of practicing Muslims. He also wrote for the independent monthly journal "Dosh," focusing primarily on human rights violations and, in particular, the ongoing trial of 58 men charged in connection with multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005, according to "Dosh" chief editor Abdulla Duduyev.
Those activities earned Kuashev respect across the North Caucasus: Just days before his death he was invited to participate in a seminar in Makhachala on the situation in Gaza. Among the 200-plus mourners at his funeral was a delegation of five people from Daghestan.
At the same time, Kuashev's engagement on behalf of fellow believers inevitably attracted the suspicion of the police and security organs, as did his adherence to Salafism. In December 2012, together with other Muslim lawyers from South Russia, he prepared an appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court questioning the constitutionality of the Stavropol Krai government's ruling that effectively prohibited school girls wearing the hijab.
In May 2014, Kuashev was detained by police for participating in a ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Tsarist war of conquest in which tens of thousands of Circassians were slaughtered or driven into exile.
Just days later, he addressed a formal appeal to the KBR Prosecutor General and Interior Minister, to the head of the KBR subsidiary of the Investigative Committee, and to Amnesty International, demanding an investigation into death threats he had received, but the Interior Ministry declined to open a formal investigation.
Last month, Kuashev posted a diatribe on Live Journal addressed to Kokov and Nalchik Mayor Mukhamed Kodzokov detailing shortcomings in Nalchik's public transport and markets, and demanding the construction of small local mosques.
Kuashev's friends and associates are convinced he was killed because of his professional engagement. They cite the marks left by a hypodermic needle in his armpit and the fact that his fingers were turning black as evidence of "a planned professional killing."
That circumstantial evidence points to the possible involvement of the security forces, and raises the question whether the perpetrators were acting at Kokov's behest or without his knowledge.
Human rights activist Valery Khatazhukov points out that since, his appointment in December 2013 to replace Arsen Kanokov, Kokov (who is a former head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for Countering Extremism, and thus should have a clearer idea than most of what tactics are most effective in containing it) has taken a moderate approach to combating the Islamic insurgency.
Kokov advocates dialogue with the Salafi community and allowing the bodies of slain militants to be returned to their families for burial despite federal legislation to the contrary.
That rejection of "force" methods may have antagonized the siloviki, in which case Kuashev's murder may have appeared a convenient way of killing two birds with one stone: getting rid of a journalist who had fearlessly criticized abuses by the power agencies, and embarrassing Kokov.
A second commentator, "Strategiya" Institute head Aslan Beshto, likewise spoke with approval of Kokov's first efforts to restore order in the health, education and construction sectors. In early April, Beshto opined that, so far, Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic.
That view of Kokov's track record is apparently not shared in Moscow. In the most recent ranking by effectiveness of 83 federation subject heads, Kokov occupied 64th-65th place with a score of 61 out of 100. Of his fellow North Caucasus leaders, only North Ossetia's Taymuraz Mamsurov ranked lower, in 80th place.
-- Liz Fuller