Persecution of Dagestan weekly continues

New York, August 28, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan to end their month-long offensive against the opposition weekly Chernovik (Rough Draft) in the regional capital, Makhachkala.

Investigators with the local prosecutor’s office and officers with the Criminal Investigation (UR) department of Dagestan’s Interior Ministry searched the homes of six Chernovik journalists on Tuesday, seizing a computer, books, and electronic files, in an attempt to find signs of extremism, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Nadira Isayeva, told CPJ.

Investigators searched the homes of Isayeva, Chernovik founder Khadzhimurad Kamalov, and reporters Timur Magomayev, Artur Mamayev, Magomed Magomedov, and Timur Mustafayev. Except for Isayeva, none of the journalists have been criminally charged, which means that five of the six home searches were in breach of Russia’s Code of Criminal Procedure, the business daily Kommersant said today, citing legal sources.

Isayeva told CPJ investigators did not present valid search warrants, but said they were looking for extremist literature. They seized one computer, two books, several computer disks, and four electronic files containing articles and book excerpts about the separatist movement in Dagestan. Among the seized materials was a broadcast on the Moscow-based independent Ekho Moskvy radio by political commentator Yulia Latynina, Kommersant reported. 

On Wednesday, a day after the searches, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman with the Investigative Committee of Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, said in a statement that “it has been determined that the authors of [Chernovik‘s] articles may have published them in co-authorship or on the order of persons sought for having committed crimes of an extremist nature,” Kommersant reported.

That same day, Isayeva got a notice signed by Maksim Mirzabalayev, investigator with the Investigative Committee at the Dagestan Prosecutor’s Office, informing her that she has been ordered to undergo a psychological analysis, she told CPJ.

“We are disturbed by the persistent persecution of Nadira Isayeva and the unsanctioned searches of Chernovik‘s journalists,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Extremism has become a term in Russian law that authorities wield liberally against critical reporters and non-mainstream publications. We call on Dagestan’s prosecutors to scrap the charges against Isayeva, return all confiscated materials and equipment, and allow Chernovik to work without fear of reprisal.”

On July 31, Dagestan prosecutors charged Isayeva under Article 280–“public appeals to extremist activity, using the mass media,” and Article 282–“incitement to hatred or hostility, as well as degrading human dignity” of Russia’s criminal code. If convicted, the 29-year-old editor faces a cumulative sentence of up to seven years in prison, with a subsequent ban on her journalism activities for up to three years, according to the code.
The charges stem from a July 4 Chernovik article, titled “Terrorists Number One,” which quoted killed Dagestani separatist leader Rappani Khalilov. In the quoted text, Khalilov–who fought against federal forces during the Second Chechen War both in Dagestan and Chechnya–accused regional authorities of spreading corruption, robbing his fellow countrymen, and enslaving themselves to the Kremlin. Khalilov was killed in a shootout with federal troops in Dagestan in September 2007, according to the Moscow-based news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel.

According to a press release by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, the article “depicts disbanded terrorist groups in Dagestan as a well-organized political power, presents terrorists as heroes, and encourages readers to believe in the necessity of violent change of the constitutional regime in Russia.”

But according to Chernovik’s journalists, the reason for the authorities’ prosecution of the paper stem not from a single article but from its overall editorial stance. “We regularly criticize Dagestan’s law enforcement structures,” Isayeva told CPJ. “Of course, our position has annoyed [law enforcement]. But it is a position, not extremism.”

The predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan has been exposed to violence due to its proximity to Chechnya. With the end of the violent conflict in Chechnya, disbanded rebel groups moved to the neighboring regions–Dagestan and Ingushetia–where they have been challenging regional authorities and federal troops. Under Putin’s presidency, authorities successfully restricted Russian and international correspondent travel to the North Caucasus to avoid exposure of human rights violations by the federal forces operating in the region. Press freedom in Russia was further restricted when Putin signed a package of amendments that expanded the definition of extremism to include public discussion of such activity, and give law enforcement officials broad authority to suspend media outlets that do not comply with the new restrictions.