New York, March 2, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) strongly condemns the harassment of Cox Newspapers Moscow correspondent Rebecca Santana and the abduction of her fixer and driver, Ruslan Soltakhanov, following a recent reporting trip to Chechnya.
Santana and Soltakhanov—who has been a fixer and driver for other Western journalists working in Chechnya—traveled in Chechnya from February 8 to 11. Santana was reporting on refugees and the disappearance of civilians and profiling the lives of students.
On February 12, Russian authorities questioned Santana at the airport in Mineralnye Vody—a town about 125 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny—as she was preparing to board a flight back to Moscow, Santana told CPJ.
The authorities, who refused to identify themselves, confiscated her notebooks, mobile phone, camera, undeveloped film, and personal data assistant. Local police identified the authorities as members of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The belongings were returned to her in Moscow on February 13, with her film developed, Santana said.
According to Santana, on the day that her belongings were returned to her, four or five unidentified men in civilian clothes abducted Soltakhanov from his home in the town of Mozdok, just west of Chechnya in North Ossetia.
Several hours later, the individuals returned, searched the house, confiscated some documents, and showed his wife, Madina Soltakhanova, two hand grenades they claimed they had found in the house, said local press reports. She told Santana that no grenades or ammunition were in the house prior to the search.
Santana said that Soltakhanov’s detention was “undoubtedly connected with the fact that he had been working with me and designed as an attempt to punish him for his actions.”
Since his detention, Soltakhanov has not been heard from and his family has not been informed why or by whom he was abducted.
Russian authorities have failed to respond to Cox Newspapers’ inquiries regarding Soltakanov’s whereabouts.
Santana sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin’s human rights commission on February 20 and has yet to receive a reply.
Chuck Holmes, editor of Cox Newspapers’ Washington Bureau, sent a letter to the Foreign Ministry on February 18. Yevgenii Khorishko, the press attaché at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., contacted Holmes by telephone a week later, informing him that the abduction was being investigated but did not provide any additional information.