Just over a week has elapsed since Human Rights Watch (HRW) unveiled its new report chronicling the Chechen authorities' relentless suppression of any criticism of acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, and already two more victims have been added to the dozens of earlier cases on which that report is based.
They are Zhalaudi Geriyev, a freelance journalist for the news portal Caucasian Knot, who was sentenced on September 6 to three years in a labor camp on a dubious charge of illegal possession of a large quantity of drugs; and political commentator Ruslan Martagov.
Geriyev was apprehended in mid-April while traveling by minibus taxi from his home village to Grozny, from where he planned to fly to Moscow to participate in a conference on the media and the Constitutional Court. He was roughed up, searched, and subsequently charged with possession of 160 grams of marijuana that he had allegedly harvested the previous summer.
As in similar cases HRW has chronicled, Geriyev's parents initially refrained from reporting his abduction for fear of endangering his life. Individuals suspected of harboring a negative perception of Kadyrov are sometimes found dead days after being apprehended by police or security personnel. One recent victim was Khizir Yezhiyev, an economics lecturer at a Grozny college and contributor to an Internet chat room whose members criticized the Chechen leadership. Yezhiyev's body was found on January 2 in Roshni-Chu, some 40 kilometers southwest of Grozny, two weeks after he was snatched by unidentified armed men.
Geriyev went on trial in June and immediately withdrew incriminating testimony that he said was extracted from him under duress at the time of his arrest. His lawyer points to major inaccuracies in the indictment. For example, Geriyev was said to have been apprehended at a cemetery in the village of Kurchaloi, having gone there with the express intention of smoking marijuana; but the list of items in his possession at the time of his arrest does not include tobacco, cigarette papers, or matches or a cigarette lighter.
Chechen public figure Ruslan Kutayev, who defied Kadyrov in February 2014 by organizing a conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's orders of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations, was similarly arrested, charged, and jailed for four years for possession of a small amount of heroin that police reported finding on him during a search.
'Visiting A Friend'
Ruslan Martagov, 66, is a writer and journalist who in the early 1990s opposed the separatist Chechen leadership headed by Dzhokhar Dudayev, for which he was accused of seeking to overthrow the regime and sentenced in absentia to execution. He served as press secretary in 1995 to Doku Zavgayev, the pro-Moscow leader appointed after the fall of Grozny at the start of the 1994-96 war, and in 1999-2000 in the same capacity under Nikolai Koshman, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin installed as his viceroy in Grozny.
Since Kadyrov's advent to power in 2007, Martagov has repeatedly criticized the Chechen authorities and Kadyrov personally in comments to Russian media, defying all warnings to desist. On September 1, he disappeared after being summoned to the Chechen Ministry for Nationality Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Information, purportedly to give an interview. Two days later, Martagov phoned his son and daughter, who had publicly expressed their concern that the Chechen security forces had abducted him, and assured them he was with unnamed friends, without disclosing a location.
On September 4, Martagov returned home; the same evening, Chechen state TV aired footage in which he apologized for the concern generated by his disappearance and again said he had visited an old friend on the occasion of the latter's birthday. Martagov specifically expressed regret that websites that support the North Caucasus insurgency had sought to use his apparent disappearance to denigrate the Chechen leadership.
Chechen human rights activists believe that Martagov was coerced into making that public statement in order to allay fears that he had been detained and subjected to psychological, and possibly also physical pressure.
The show trial of Geriyev and the apparently stage-managed apology by Martagov are both aspects of what HRW describes as a vicious and comprehensive crackdown that got under way in 2014 not just on those courageous enough to criticize Kadyrov publicly but on anyone whose absolute loyalty to Kadyrov is open to question.
That chain of reprisals, HRW writes, has intensified in the run-up to the September 18 elections in which Kadyrov is seeking a third consecutive term as republic head, the objective presumably being to suppress any negative information about the situation in Chechnya that could either influence voters or raise doubts in Moscow concerning the advisability of condoning his reelection.
One could argue that in that context the reprisals against Geriyev and Martagov are counterintuitive and counterproductive, given the negative publicity they will inevitably generate. The priority of Kadyrov and his henchmen, however, is more likely to be preserving for Moscow's benefit the illusion that Kadyrov's heavy-handed methods are not only effective in maintaining "stability" across Chechnya but have the unequivocal support of the entire population.