Igor Kalyapin knows the danger of investigating allegations of rights abuses in Russia's southern Chechnya region better than most people.
When a group of more than a dozen men beat him and pelted him with eggs outside a Grozny hotel late on March 16, it was not his first brush with thuggery.
Kalyapin's Committee to Prevent Torture has been frequently singled out for criticism by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2014, shortly after Kadyrov publicly pledged to raze the homes of "terrorists" in his North Caucasus republic, Kalyapin's office in Grozny was ransacked and gutted by fire.
On March 6, a group of activists from Kalyapin's organization was stopped near Chechnya's border with Ingushetia. They were pulled from the bus they were traveling in and beaten, after which the vehicle was torched.
"Any human rights activity in Chechnya involves significantly greater risk than in any region of central Russia," Kalyapin told RFE/RL's Russian Service during an interview in January. "That is clear."
Kalyapin noted that, although it is hard to prosecute cases of police torture anywhere in Russia, the situation in Chechnya is unique. "I can't think of any regions where investigations were opposed and rights activists helping victims were pressured by the head of the region," Kalyapin said. "In Chechnya, this happens all the time."
Although his organization has brought 109 police officers to trial across Russia since it was created in 2009, not one of dozens of cases investigated in Chechnya has gone to court.
'Born Rights Activist'
The 49-year-old activist from the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod is an interesting figure in Russia's beleaguered civil-society landscape. On one hand, he is a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights with special responsibility for defending human rights in the North Caucasus and reforming the Russian penal system.
On the other hand, Russia's Justice Ministry in January included Kalyapin's Committee to Prevent Torture on its list of Russian nongovernmental organizations acting as "foreign agents," under a recent law requiring all NGOs receiving foreign funding to declare it.
Kalyapin is contesting that designation, noting that the Justice Ministry did not find any foreign contributions to his organization. Instead, Russian officials listed it because some individuals who supported the organization had "connections" with organizations that receive foreign funding.
"There are many such organizations in Russia, of course," Kalyapin told RFE/RL. "Gazprom, for example." He says the Committee to Prevent Torture is funded entirely by individual donations made in rubles.
'Not About Kadyrov'
Kalyapin rejects accusations that his work is aimed at Kadyrov.
"Ramzan Kadyrov is not mentioned in our materials," he said. "Our materials are about specific police officers. But in connection with this, Ramzan Kadyrov accuses us of helping terrorists, of helping jihadis, of working for the CIA. This is plainly false and slanderous and it is aimed constantly from the head of the Chechen Republic at our organization, at me, and at my co-workers, and so on.
It is clear that Kadyrov takes Kalyapin's work personally. In a 2014 interview published by the opposition, pro-democracy website Open Russia, Kalyapin describes a three-hour one-on-one meeting he had with Kadyrov in 2010.
"And the first question he asked me was: 'Tell me now right away, is it true that your group was sent by [then-Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev to collect compromising material on me?'" Kalyapin recalled.
In the same interview, Kalyapin describes himself as a "born rights activist," although his focus was refined in 1993 when he spent three months in pretrial detention in a case he says was aimed at taking over his successful business.
"It wasn't the kind of pretrial detention that we have now," he recalls. There were 11 of us in a cell designed for four. I remember lying down in a bunk and noticing a crunching sound in the blanket. It was covered with tiny fleas."
In comments after the March 16 attack, in which Kalyapin was not seriously injured, the activist insisted the perpetrators did not represent "the Chechen people" or the republic's Muslim majority.
Commenting on the attack on March 17, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said: "I would not link this situation with Kadyrov's authorities. Rather, it is linked with the crime situation."
The head of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, said he was "outraged" by the attack on a council member and called it "extremism."
Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya since shortly after his father, former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in 2004. He has been widely accused of human rights abuses, including kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and the murder of political opponents.