GROZNY, Russia - Memorial says its office in Ingushetia has been torched in a "terrorist" attack that the prominent Russian human rights group said was part of a campaign to chase it out of the North Caucasus.
A leading member of Memorial, which has sought to document abuses in the region despite years of pressure and the killing of at least one activist, told RFE/RL on January 17 that assailants set fire to the office in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest city, overnight.
Oleg Orlov said security cameras showed that two masked men arrived at the office at about 3:30 a.m. local time, used a ladder to climb to the second floor, and broke into the premises through a window.
YouTube footage posted by Memorial shows the men in black balaclavas emerging from a car and placing a ladder against the building, which is not in direct view, then fleeing after a flash of light sends what look like balls or fire shooting out into the street:
"We consider it a terrorist attack," he told RFE/RL by telephone, saying that its apparent goal was to "frighten ordinary people" and deal a blow to Memorial.
A photograph on the group's website showed a gutted, blackened room, and Orlov said that three of the six rooms in the building were seriously damaged.
Amnesty International called it a "vicious attack" and part of a "coordinated assault" on Memorial.
“The Russian authorities, who have long sought to silence Memorial from speaking out on human rights issues, must launch a thorough and effective investigation...and bring those responsible to justice," Anna Neistat, Amnesty's senior director for research, said in a statement. "Any failure to do so would raise suspicions about the authorities’ possible involvement."
Orlov linked the incident to the pressure Memorial has come under in neighboring Chechnya, where the head of the rights group's office was arrested on January 9 and is being held on a drug-possession charge, which he and supporters contend is false.
"This attack is not random. A criminal case was fabricated against Oyub Titiyev and...massive pressure is being imposed on Memorial in Chechnya," he said. "It looks like they consider Memorial an enemy that they want to remove" from the North Caucasus.
Memorial echoed that assessment, saying that its office in Nazran "is exclusively dedicated to human rights problems in Ingushetia and in no way linked to Chechen issues."
"Nonetheless, it's obvious to us that there is a link between the arson attack with those forces who are trying to destroy the work of Memorial in Chechnya and squeeze Memorial out of the entire North Caucasus region," it said in a statement.
Human rights activists say that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the region in the North Caucasus, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces. They also charge that Kadyrov has been responsible for abuses that include kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and killings of political opponents.
Natalya Estemirova, who was Titiyev's predecessor at Memorial in Chechnya and was investigating alleged rights abuses in Chechnya by regional authorities and Russian military forces, was abducted and killed in 2009.
Kremlin critics say President Vladimir Putin turns a blind eye to alleged abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution by Kadyrov because he relies on the former rebel to control separatist sentiments and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.
In a statement, the Emergency Situations Ministry branch in Ingushetia reported the fire but said nothing about the cause and made no mention of Memorial.
Tanya Lokshina, a Moscow-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, condemned what she called the arson attack and also linked it to Titiyev's case.
"There is little doubt that this brazen crime has everything to do with Memorial’s current work in Chechnya and the attempts by Memorial’s leadership and lawyers to ensure Oyub Titiyev’s release," Lokshina wrote on Facebook.
Titiyev, 60, was detained on January 9 by police who claimed to have found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.
In a letter addressed to Putin and made public on January 16, Titiyev said he was innocent, accused police of planting the drugs, and voiced concern that he could be tortured or his family threatened in an effort to extract a confession.
Western governments and human rights organizations condemned Titiyev's arrest and called for his release.
Titiyev's attorney Pavel Zaikin said on January 15 that police in Chechnya have ignored Titiyev's medical needs and kept him in a temporary police detention unit that has no medical staff.
On January 14, Zaikin said that some of Titiyev's relatives left Chechnya after police imposed pressure on them.
Memorial has charged that the case against Titiyev was "fabricated" in retaliation against the activist's human rights activities.
Putin's advisory council on human rights has urged the Investigative Committee to look into the circumstances of Titiyev's detention, saying there are "grounds to believe" the marijuana "could have been planted" in his car.
In December 2014, the office of another human rights group, the Committee to Prevent Torture, was destroyed in an apparent arson attack in Chechnya's capital, Grozny.Nobody has been held accountable.