New York, January 29, 2008–Police in the southern Russian Republic of Ingushetia detained, beat, and deported journalists and human rights activists who tried to cover an opposition rally in the regional capital on Saturday, according to CPJ sources and local news reports.
Authorities mounted a massive crackdown against the roughly 200 protesters in Nazran. Riot police in heavy gear used clubs to disperse the rally; armored personnel carriers and helicopters were deployed, according to CPJ sources. Police rounded up nine journalists and two human rights defenders and detained them at the local police headquarters for several hours, effectively preventing them from reporting on the demonstration. Two of the journalists were badly beaten, according to CPJ interviews.
“We are appalled by the abusive actions of the Ingush authorities, which effectively prevented news of civil protests from reaching the rest of the world,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The forceful prevention of journalists from covering important news is the reason why Russia’s North Caucasus has become a virtual black hole for information.”
Protesters tried to gather on Soglasiye Square in downtown Nazran around 10 a.m. on Saturday to protest widespread corruption, abductions, killings, and arbitrary arrests in the republic, CPJ sources said. Protesters carried banners calling on Ingushetia’s President Murat Zyazikov to resign.
Before the demonstration began, five plainclothes officers rounded up Vladimir Varfolomeyev and Roman Plyusov, reporters with the Moscow-based independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, and Semyon Eryomin, Konstantin Shelyapin, and Andrei Zhilnikov of the St. Petersburg-based independent television Channel 5. They were taken to the local police headquarters, allegedly to “check their documents,” Varfolomeyev told CPJ.
Soon after that, Olga Bobrova, a correspondent for the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Danila Galperovich, a reporter with the Russian Service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were taken to the same police station as the other journalists. Police held all seven there until the demonstration ended. Ingushetia’s Deputy Prosecutor Gelani Merzhuyev told them they were simply being kept away from the unrest “for their own safety,” Varfolomeyev told CPJ.
At around 7 p.m. some 15 riot police officers deported the Ekho Moskvy and Channel 5 journalists to the neighboring republic of North Ossetia. Varfolomeyev told CPJ they were put in an armored vehicle and “not given the chance to gather our belongings from the hotel without a military escort.”
In a separate incident at the protest, at around 12:30 p.m., police arrested photographer Said-Hussein Tsarnayev of the state news agency RIA-Novosti and reporter Mustafa Kurskiyev from the Moscow-based weekly Zhizn za Nedelyu (Week in Review), according to local news reports. The two had been trying to take pictures of a local newspaper office, which had been set on fire by protesters, Tsarnayev told CPJ.
Tsarnayev and Kurskiyev were forcibly put in a sedan and beaten on the way to police headquarters, where they were interrogated and kept for about 30 hours, Tsarnayev told CPJ. Kurskiyev was beaten with clubs and needed medical attention, according to the independent news agency Regnum. Police threatened to charge them with arson and instigation of an illegal rally. In exchange for their release, police tried to make Tsarnayev and Kurskiyev sign written statements pleading guilty to the accusations; they refused, and were eventually released after the intervention of local human rights group Memorial.
Police also detained Memorial activists Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya and Tamerlan Akiyev who were monitoring the rally. They have also since been released.
On Friday, a day before the demonstration, Ingush law enforcement agencies announced the launch of a counterterrorist operation, and ordered residents to stay home the next day. Opposition activists had announced plans to hold a rally earlier this month, according to local news reports.
Tensions in Ingushetia have risen in recent months and local authorities have worked hard to repress news from the region, according to the CPJ research. In November, CPJ called on federal Russian authorities to investigate the vicious attack on three television journalists and a prominent human rights advocate in Nazran who had planned to cover a similar opposition rally. No arrests have so far been made.