Ten years ago, former businessman Magomed Mutsolgov founded the NGO Mashr to provide legal advice free of charge to fellow Ingush whose relatives had allegedly been abducted or summarily killed by the security services, and to displaced persons from other North Caucasus republics temporarily domiciled in Ingushetia.
But the future of Mashr is now under threat following a search on November 6 by some 30 armed, masked security personnel of its offices and of the homes of Mutsolgov and his younger brother Ruslan, during which all computers and written records were confiscated.
In a blog post later on November 6, Mutsolgov quoted extensively from the search warrant, which identifies him as an agent for NGOs based in Georgia, Europe, and the United States that engage in anti-Russian activities. It alleges that, acting on orders from those organizations, Mutsolgov seeks to foment interethnic conflicts in the North Caucasus and to create a negative perception of Russian policy towards Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria. It also claims that he prepares "various extremist materials" while concealing his "extremist views."
Mutsolgov dismissed those allegations as ridiculous, while Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial branded them "quasi-juridical ravings" redolent of the baseless charges brought against Soviet-era dissidents.
Hugh Williamson, who is Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said they are "outrageous and clearly aim to intimidate and demonize [Mutsolgov] in the public eye."
Mutsolgov commented separately to the news portal Caucasian Knot that "I had no doubt that this would happen sooner or later," given that he had been warned repeatedly that a criminal case would be brought against him. Eighteen months earlier, he had reacted with similar equanimity to reports that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) was planning to kill him.
As on that occasion, Mutsolgov has addressed an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and federal Prosecutor-General Yury Chayka asking them to protect his constitutional rights and ensure the continued functioning of Mashr. He stressed that Mashr has always been open to dialogue with the Republic of Ingushetia authorities, and does not engage in either politics or religion.
Respected Across The Board
Mutsolgov's commitment and courage have earned him widespread respect both among the human rights community in Russia as well as further afield -- and antagonists at home. Valery Borshchev, an adviser on human rights to Putin, has characterized him as "a profoundly honest person, sincere, deeply committed to the human rights movement and belonging to that Caucasian type who are irreproachably decent."
Novaya Gazeta journalist Irina Gordienko compared the fearlessness with which Mutsolgov criticizes the Ingushetian authorities with that of a trainer who walks into a cage of tigers.
Commentators and experts have offered various hypotheses as to who specifically is out to put an end to Mashr's activities, and why now. The Chechen historian Ruslan Martagov links the search of Mashr's office to the ongoing campaign to suppress any dissenting voices and close down NGOs deemed as "agents of foreign influence." But it would be difficult to demonstrate that Mashr falls into that latter category, as Mutsolgov has for years declined to accept any foreign grants.
Ruslan Mutsolgov, who heads the Ingushetia chapter of the opposition Yabloko party, linked the search to the imminent start of the campaign for next year's elections to the Russian State Duma.
Borshchev opined that the search of Mashr's office was instigated at the republican, not the federal level, given that both the Public Chamber and the presidential Human Rights Commission are acquainted with Mustolgov's work and aware it is not illegal. He linked it to a power struggle between various "political forces and clans" in Ingushetia, some of which support Mutsolgov while others are against him.
Writing on his blog on the news portal Caucasus Knot, Mutsolgov listed among those who resented Mashr's activities "killers and abductors, the corrupt and those who fancy themselves as boyars, petty princelings, those who oppress the common people, and those bureaucrats who don't want a peaceful and flourishing republic in which there would be no opportunity for arbitrary illegal acts and taking an illicit slice of budget funds."
At the same time, Mutsolgov stressed that the security personnel who conducted the November 6 search behaved with restraint, and that the rank-and-file Ingushetian police and security personnel bear him no ill-will but, on the contrary, "blush and make excuses" whenever they are sent by their superiors to question him, and wish him luck when they leave.
It is possible, however, that the most recent pressure on Mutsolgov was not initiated either by the republican authorities or in Moscow. Gordienko makes the point that the security personnel who conducted the search of Mutsolgov's home and Mashr's office were from the North Caucasus Federal District Main Investigative Directorate, acting on orders from Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, who heads the federal Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District.
Chenchik is a long-time ally of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who has for years been engaged in a bitter feud with Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Kadyrov may thus have solicited Chenchik's assistance with the explicit intention of embarrassing Yevkurov by launching a campaign against a respected human rights organization for which many observers are likely to hold Yevkurov responsible.
As of November 11, the Republic of Ingushetia Supreme Court had still not provided Mutsolgov with a copy of the search warrant, without which he cannot lodge a formal complaint. Two days later, however, a district court in Magas, the Republic of Ingushetia capital, rejected as illegal a document compiled in September 2015 by the republican Justice Ministry claiming that Mashr's activities violate the law. Whether Mutsolgov's supporters in Ingushetia are influential enough to prevail against Chenchik remains to be seen.