Russia: One step forward, two steps back in the battle against impunity in Dagestan

Russia: One step forward, two steps back in the battle against impunity in Dagestan - Protection

Today, on 15 December 2015, ARTICLE 19 marks the 24th annual Russian Memorial Day for Killed Journalists, by examining the progress, or lack thereof, of the investigations into the murders of three journalists – Abdumalik Akhmedilov (2009), Khadijmurad Kamalov (2011) and Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev (2013). All have been killed, currently with complete impunity, seemingly as a result of their journalistic work in the Republic of Dagestan, often referred to as the country’s most dangerous region for media.

In October 2014, at a meeting of the Russian Human Rights Council (HRC), President Putin made a promise to personally draw the attention of the heads of Russia’s investigating bodies to the high number of journalists killed with impunity in Dagestan. Referring to this promise a year later a HRC member Maksim Shevchenko commented “nothing has changed: at first things seemed to start to roll, but a couple of months later everything came to a standstill.”

The investigations into the three murders demonstrate the failure of the Russian authorities to achieve justice in Dagestan, even when some positive steps appear to have been taken. Fundamental failures by the local authorities, compounded by a refusal to elevate cases to a federal level, have resulted in quashed convictions on apparent technicalities (Akhmedilov), suspects not brought to trial (Kamalov) and investigations repeatedly suspended without either suspected perpetrators or instigators being identified (Akhmednabiyev).

“The issue is not just the lack of successful convictions for such crimes, but that from the start investigations are not conducted in a thorough, efficient and most importantly – independent – manner,” stated Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director. “The local authorities responsible for investigating these crimes have sometimes been criticised by the victims in the past; while local vested interests appear to impede investigations allowing those who wish to silence journalists do so with continued impunity.”

Impunity for these murders, and for the many other Russian media workers killed as a result of their work, casts a very dark outlook for justice and protection of journalists both in Dagestan and in Russia more broadly. While each case represents an attack on the individual, it is also a wider violation of the right of all people to seek, receive and impart information.

“Investigations into the murders of journalists must be treated with special importance and elevated to the Central Investigative Department of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee. This would be a meaningful and positive step to show Russia is truly committed to solving these crimes as impartially, speedily and effectively as possible,” Hughes added.

Mistakes lead to the collapse of convictions – Abdumalik Akhmedilov 

On 11 August 2009, Abdumalik Akhmedilov, editor-in-chief of Sogratl and deputy editor of the Avar newspaper Hakikat (Truth), was found shot dead in his car in the outskirts of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala. Over six years later, despite a lengthy investigation and court trial, in which two people were convicted for his murder, the case remains open.

In July 2015, the Judicial Chamber of the Supreme Court of Dagestan overturned the convictions of two people – Murad Shuaybov and Isa Abdurakhmanov – to 10.5 and 8 years for murder and aiding a murder respectively. This decision was based on reported procedural violations during their trial, which had only concluded in March 2015. According to the Dagestani branch of the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) the sentences were revoked on the grounds that the court clerk had not signed the record of the hearing after the trial, an oversight they highlight as suspicious given the high-profile nature of the case. The retrial started on 2 September 2015 with one witness for the prosecution testifying, and further hearings to come.

The convictions of Shuaybov and Abdurakhmanov had appeared to be a positive development in what had been a long investigative process. It took almost four years after Akhmedilov was murdered for the suspects to be arrested, and another two before they were convicted. However, even with the identification of the perpetrators seemingly established, there are still questions about the motive and who was really behind the killing. While the suspect Shuaybov originally denied any involvement, he later confessed stating he was motivated by “personal enmity” due to the journalist supposedly spreading false information about his commitment to Wahhabism – a fact that has been strongly questioned by Akhmedilov’s colleagues. Shuaybov has since complained that he was subjected to torture while in custody in order to extract a confession for the murder of Akhmedilov, as well as that of Khadijmurad Kamalov, who was killed in 2011.

Akhmedilov was well known for his critical journalism, accusing local and federal authorities of cracking down on political opposition under the pretence of fighting ‘extremism’. In a 2014 interview with ARTICLE 19 Biyakay Magomedov, a lawyer and a co-founder of local newspaper Chernovik, stated “This is the only case in Dagestan when both the family members and friends of the victim named the perpetrators straight after the killing and also presented the motive. However, the man they identify as the chief instigator for Akhmedilov’s murder, and later also Kamalov’s, a deputy in Dagestani National Assembly, was apparently never questioned by investigators and has been accused of using his connections to evade criminal prosecution.

Four years on and impunity remains – Khadjimurad Kamalov

Khadjimurad Kamalov was murdered on 15 December 2011, notably the annual Memorial Day for killed journalists, becoming the eleventh journalist to be murdered in Dagestan between 2001-2011. The founder of the popular independent weekly newspaper Chernovik was shot downas he left work around midnight, with the gunman leaving him fatally wounded. Four years on, despite the identification of potential suspects no one has been brought to justice.

Prior to his murder, Kamalov frequently reported on contentious issues within Dagestan, including rifts between religious communities, corruption, armed conflicts and freedom of the media. As a result, several criminal and civil cases were brought against Chernovik and its editors with the apparent aim to shut it down. Kamalov had also founded the organisation “Svoboda Slova” (Freedom of Speech) and in the aftermath of his murder most experts were convinced he was killed as a result of his work, having garnered a number of enemies as an independent journalist and public figure.

Positively, and unlike in some other cases, the investigators did not rule out that Kamalov may have been killed in relation to his professional duties. Nevertheless the investigation has made painfully slow progress. In 2012, a petition requesting that President Putin take the review of Kamalov’s case under his personal supervision garnered 120,000 signatures from Russian citizens to no avail. In April and June 2013, Dagestani journalist Orkhan Jemal published two articles in Chernovik in which he outlined the supposed involvement of Murad Shuaybov, also implicated in the murder of Akhmedilov, along with his brother Magomed and two other men for Kamalov’s murder. Magomed Shuaybov was already in prison for another murder; and while arrests have been made so far no one has been brought to trial. According to the Dagastani branch of the RUJ, one of the accused, Magomed Khazamov, who was detained in Essentuki city of Stavropol region last year has been released and placed under house arrest, despite previously being held in custody.

Kamalov, like many journalists in the region, had faced previous threats and had not received any protection from the local authorities. Specifically in 2009, his name was included on a ‘death list’ circulated in Makhachkala, which also featured Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev. Despite a criminal investigation being opened those behind the leaflets were not detained. This lack of action by the state authorities against such serious threats could be seen to send a message to the perpetrators that they will not be held responsible for such acts of intimidation. The effect of such impunity is clear.

Investigation still stalled at regional level – Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev

Almost two and a half years have passed since the murder of journalist, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, a reporter for Caucasian Knot, and deputy editor of independent newspaper Novoye Delo, who was shot dead in July 2013 as he left for work in Makhachkala. Within a year of Akhmednabiyev’s murder the investigation had already been suspended, with neither the perpetrators nor instigators identified. As well as ensuring impunity for his murder, this rapid move to suspend the case set a terrible precedent for future investigations into attacks on journalists in Russia. ARTICLE 19 joined the campaign to have his case reopened, and made a call for the Russian authorities to act during the United Nations Human Rights Council  (HRC) session in September 2014. While the Dagestani branch of the Investigative Committee did reopen his case, it has been subsequently suspended again in 2015 with little visible progress.

A letter November 2014, as well as a statement in July 2015, both supported by more than 30 international and Russian organisations, called on Aleskandr Bastrykin, Head of the Federal Investigative Committee to elevate Akhmednabiyev’s case to the federal level. There has been no official response from the Federal Investigative Committee to the letter, which was first deferred to the Main Investigative Department for North Caucasus Federal Region, then in turn to the Dagestani Investigative Committee on Particularly Important Cases. The latter in its official reply to ARTICLE 19 simply stated, “At present, the preliminary criminal investigation is suspended on the grounds of failure to identify a perpetrator of the crime, according to the provisions of art. 208 of the Criminal Procedural Code of Russia.”

Akhmednabiyev had survived a previous assassination attempt in a similar manner six months before his murder, in January 2013, which the authorities had failed to properly investigate. It had been wrongly logged by the police as property damage, rather than attempted murder, which was successfully challenged by Akhmednabiyev but ultimately was only reclassified after the journalist’s death. This demonstrates a shameful failure by Dagestani authorities to investigate the motive and prevent further attacks. They also did not respond to a request Akhmednabiyev for protection, despite a history of previous threats including inclusion on the 2009 aforementioned ‘death list’ and in light of Kamalov’s murder.

Recommendations

The failure to bring the perpetrators and instigators of these attacks to justice is symptomatic of the broader issue of impunity for journalists both in Dagestan and across Russia. In turn, this has contributed to a climate of impunity in the country, increasing the likelihood of self-censorship and posing a serious threat to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 specifically calls for an urgent review of Akhmedilov, Kamalov and Akhmednabiyev’s cases by Russian Federal Investigative Committee and for all cases of murdered journalists to be referred to the federal level as a matter of procedure. Furthermore, ARTICLE 19 calls on Russia to adopt all necessary political and legal measures to protect journalists and defend the right to freedom of expression, in accordance with their international obligations. The government’s failure to address threats to journalists can be seen as a breach of the State’s “positive obligation” to protect an individual’s freedom of expression against attacks, as defined by European Court of Human Rights case law (Dink v. Turkey, 2010).

ARTICLE 19 also urges Russia to adopt the recommendations included in the 2014 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on the safety of journalists and ending impunity. Responding to the needs of journalists in countries where the rate of impunity is high, the resolution makes practical recommendations to States who have the primary responsibility to end the cycle of abuses journalists face. This includes “ensuring impartial, speedy, thorough, independent and effective investigations, which seek to bring to justice the masterminds behind attacks”. These recommendations reflect and give weight to existing guidance from various UN bodies, including the reports of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the work of the special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

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