The Chechen Republic's Supreme Court last week cleared the way for a libel suit brought by the Chechen Interior Ministry against the Moscow-based human rights organization Civic Assistance, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of the southern village of Kenkhi.
In April 2016, Dzhalaldinov incurred the anger of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by addressing an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kenkhi authorities of corruption.
The Chechen Interior Ministry's suit, which according to Novaya Gazeta lawyer Pyotr Zankin contains gross legal errors, was prompted by public statements by Novaya Gazeta and Civic Assistance founder and head Svetlana Gannushkina about alleged reprisals subsequently inflicted on Dzhalaldinov and his family, possibly by Chechen law enforcement agencies, between May and early November 2016. Specifically, the ministry accused the three defendants of damaging its professional reputation through statements they made in November 2016.
The Chechen authorities appear to have orchestrated a purportedly spontaneous demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building last week by some 100 people who made sarcastic and derogatory comments about human rights activists and journalists who, they alleged, routinely distort the situation in Chechnya, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on November 10. Some of the participants subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service they were paid 1,000 rubles ($16.90) for attending the protest.
Kadyrov had responded to Dzhalaldinov's appeal to Putin by branding him a liar, whereupon Dzhalaldinov lodged a formal complaint with Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika requesting that he take legal action against Kadyrov for having publicly insulted him.
On May 6, 2016, Kadyrov traveled to Kenkhi, where he assured the predominantly Avar population that local officials accused of pocketing the compensation due to residents for damage inflicted on their property during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000 would be punished. Kadyrov also promised to repair local highways and connect the village to the mains gas supply. For good measure, he also fired the district head and local police chief.
Just days later, however, Dzhalaldinov's home was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances, with his family accusing Chechen law enforcement personnel of torching the place and threatening to kill his wife and three daughters.
Possibly in light of the widespread negative publicity, unconfirmed reports suggested an agreement had been reached that Dzhalaldinov would publicly apologize to Kadyrov in return for a promise that Dzhalaldinov and his family would not be subjected to any further reprisals. On May 30, the Chechen state TV company broadcast footage in which Dzhalaldinov apologized to Kadyrov. Caucasian Knot, however, quoted Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina as saying Dzhalaldinov told her the apology footage was selectively edited.
Despite the indications that no further action would be taken against Dzhalaldinov, in August 2016 a district court found him guilty of circulating false information and sentenced him to 160 hours of community service.
Then, in early November, Dzhalaldinov disappeared but contacted Gannushkina a few days later to explain to her that he had fled Chechnya after being summoned to Grozny on November 2 by Chechen First Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov. In a post on her Facebook page, Gannushkina quoted Dzhalaldinov as saying Alaudinov threatened to kill him if he continued to publicize the apparently still difficult situation in Kenkhi.
Several weeks later, on December 9, Novaya Gazeta convened a press conference in Moscow at which both Milashina and Gannushkina provided detailed accounts of the pressure and harassment to which Dzhalaldinov had allegedly been subjected.
The Interior Ministry's suit reportedly did not quote verbatim from either Gannushkina's Facebook post or the allegedly defamatory statements she and Milashina made at that press conference, or provide concrete evidence that those statements were untrue or damaging. That is said to be among reasons cited by both Novaya Gazeta and Gannushkina in disputing its legality.
They also argue that, because both organizations are registered in Moscow, the libel suit should have been filed there, not in Chechnya. They suggest Dzhalaldinov was listed as a co-defendant to provide a legal foundation for taking them to court in a remote corner of Chechnya rather than in Moscow, where journalists for national and international media outlets would seek to report on the hearing.
Oleg Orlov of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial told Caucasian Knot that Dzhalaldinov does not legally qualify as a defendant because although he was the primary source of the information made public by Milashina and Gannushkina at the December 2016 press conference, he did not disseminate it personally.
In addition, Gannushkina has argued, first, that Civic Assistance should not be held legally responsible for a post she made in a private capacity, rather than as its leader; and, second, that nowhere in her Facebook post did she refer to the Chechen Interior Ministry as such (although she did mention First Deputy Interior Minister Alaudinov).
She also argued that, in light of widespread speculation at the time of Dzhalaldinov's disappearance following his confrontation with Alaudinov that the Chechen Interior Ministry had either apprehended or killed him, the revelations at the press conference that Dzhalaldinov was alive and well and no longer in Chechnya served to uphold the ministry's professional reputation by exonerating it of the suspicion of foul play, rather than damage it.
Possible Alternative Motive
Even though the Interior Ministry's collective libel suit and the seemingly orchestrated demonstration outside the Supreme Court building against perceived distortions of reality by Moscow-based journalists and human rights organizations suggest a new campaign of intimidation by Chechen authorities, the timing suggests a possible alternative motive.
The press conference at which Milashina and Gannushkina discussed Dzhalaldinov's case took place on December 6, 2016. Later that month, according to Caucasian Knot, the ministry launched an investigation and concluded in early April 2017 that there were no grounds for a criminal case.
Also in April, however, Milashina went public with allegations that gays in Chechnya were being subjected to harassment, detention, and torture. She later published what she said was a death list drawn up by the Chechen Interior Ministry of young men suspected of involvement in the December 2016 attacks on police in Grozny at least 14 of whom were apprehended and summarily executed.
The question thus arises: Did those revelations so enrage the Interior Ministry and/or Kadyrov personally that it was decided to bring a libel suit against Novaya Gazeta, and were Civic Assistance and Dzhalaldinov named as co-defendants simply to confuse the issue?