Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman thinks he might know who is responsible for the brutal attack on journalists and rights activists who were trying to enter the Russian region earlier this week -- one of the rights representatives himself.
About 20 masked men attacked the group, which included Swedish Radio correspondent Maria Persson Lofgren and Norwegian reporter Oystein Windstad and two activists from the Russian rights group the Committee to Prevent Torture, as they were traveling to Chechnya from neighboring Ingushetia on March 9.
The committee said the men stopped the minibus, used clubs to attack the group, called them “terrorists,” and set fire to the minibus.
Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the Chechen ombudsman, now says that it was a “planned” act and suggested partial responsibility for it lies with the head of the committee, Igor Kalyapin.
In an interview with the independent Russian Dozhd TV channel, Nukhazhiyev speculated that Kalyapin -- who was not traveling with the group -- may have seen an upside to the 2009 killing of Chechen rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
“Self-promotion is the most important thing. What happened after the murder of Natalya Estemirova from [rights group] Memorial? Memorial blossomed, received awards, honors. Unfortunately, that's what happened. This is my opinion,” Nukhazhiyev said.
Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny and found shot dead in Ingushetia. At the time, she had been investigating torture, abductions, and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. Memorial says Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's strongman leader, had threatened Estemirova months before her death.
Nukhazhiyev told Dozhd that neither Chechnya nor Ingushetia would benefit from the March 9 attack, even though Chechen authorities have repeatedly referred to independent journalists as "enemies of the people" and Kadyrov has publicly vilified the Committee to Prevent Torture.
"Why make threats against someone and then carry them out? To arouse suspicion, criticism? What would be the point?” Nukhazhiyev asked, suggesting that Kadyrov had merely been defending himself against unfair attacks by the media.
Moreover, according to the ombudsman, Kadyrov doesn’t even have the “levers” at his disposal to carry out such an attack.
"Let the people in Moscow ask their subordinates why they didn’t provide free passage and safety [for the group]? That's a question for them. So why are all these questions being addressed to the head of the Chechen Republic?” Nukhazhiyev said.
He added that he would "persistently, competently, consistently" look into the attack, if anybody asked him to do so.
Kadyrov is accused of using abductions and torture to rule Chechnya since he was put at the helm of the republic in 2007.
‘The Height Of Cynicism’
Kalyapin called Nukhazhiyev’s comments “delusional” and said they made no sense.
"It’s the height of cynicism. I don’t know how he could bring himself to say that, in 2009, after Estemirova’s murder and the evacuation of all its staff from Chechnya, Memorial ‘blossomed’," Kalyapin told Dozhd.
Kalyapin added that he won’t ask Nukhazhiyev to investigate the attack, saying that the ombudsman protects Kadyrov’s image and that it would be "naive to expect objectivity from him.”
Prominent human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina sarcastically called Nukhazhiyev the "ombudsman for the rights of one person," a reference to Kadyrov, on her Facebook page. She added that she didn’t want to comment on his interview “because of [her] disgust.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the March 9 attack "was enabled by the government's inaction in the face of overt hostility to the press."