Web site owner killed in police custody in Ingushetia

New York, September 2, 2008–Russian federal authorities must undertake a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into Sunday’s shocking death of Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the popular news Web site Ingushetiya, who was killed in the custody of police in Ingushetia, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yevloyev died from a gunshot wound to the head while being transported by Ingush police following his arrest at the airport in the regional capital, Magas. Ingush police immediately called the shooting an accident, saying Yevloyev had tried to take a gun from one of the arresting officers. Yevloyev’s relatives, colleagues, and friends told CPJ they believe he was murdered to silence the Web site, one of the few remaining independent news sources in Ingushetia.

“We mourn the death of our colleague Magomed Yevloyev and send our deep condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “The circumstances of Yevloyev’s death, along with local authorities’ long record of hostility toward him, raise natural and substantial doubts about the official account. We call on Moscow authorities to carry out a thorough, effective, and unbiased investigation into Yevloyev’s death that includes the possibility he was deliberately targeted for his work.”

Yevloyev had just disembarked a Moscow-Ingushetia flight when he was arrested by Ingush police about 1:30 p.m., according to a colleague who was present at the scene but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Yevloyev, who lived in Moscow with his family, was traveling to Ingushetia to visit with his parents and friends. Around 20 relatives and friends had gathered at Magas airport to greet Yevloyev.

Shortly before he got off the airplane, Yevloyev sent a text message to Magomed Khazbiyev, a friend and local opposition activist, telling him that he had shared the flight with Ingushetia President Murat Zyazikov, the friend told CPJ. After the presidential cortege left the airport, six armored vehicles approached the plane, Khazbiyev said. A group of armed police officers approached Yevloyev and placed him in a UAZ van. “They did not handcuff him, and he did not resist them,” Khazbiyev told CPJ.

The business daily Kommersant reported today that Ingush police had detained Yevloyev as a witness in a criminal investigation into an August explosion at the home of a regional administration official.

When they saw Yevloyev had been detained, Khazbiyev said, friends followed the vehicles in their own cars. After the police vehicles left the airport, they split into two columns and took different directions. Khazbiyev and Yevloyev’s relatives and friends followed the group heading toward Ingushetia’s main city, Nazran. “We followed them for about 20 minutes until we almost reached Nazran’s city limits,” Khazbiyev told CPJ. When the cars stopped, it became clear Yevloyev was not there. “We have no blood on our hands,” one police officer told them, Khazbiyev told CPJ.

Ingush police said that shortly after the journalist was placed in one of their vans, Yevloyev tried to wrestle away a gun belonging to one of the arresting officers. The gun went off, police said, striking Yevloyev in the temple. Police brought Yevloyev to a Nazran hospital, where he died.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman with the investigative committee of Russia’s prosecutor-general’s office, told journalists on Monday that a criminal case has been opened and the case has been categorized as “murder by negligence.” The statement left unclear, though, whether regional or federal prosecutors are in charge of the probe.

Yevloyev’s Web site was well known to human rights and press freedom groups in Russia and abroad as a reliable source for information in the tightly controlled republic of Ingushetia in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region. Ingushetiya had reported on governmental corruption, human rights abuses, unemployment, and a string of unsolved disappearances and killings in recent months. The site covered antigovernment protests and had called for Zyazikov’s resignation.

On June 6, a district court in Moscow ordered the closure of Ingushetiya for alleged extremism. Yevloyev told CPJ at the time that he believed authorities wanted the site closed because of its critical coverage. Yevloyev told CPJ that Ingushetia authorities had launched more than a dozen lawsuits against the Web site in the past year. Despite the court’s decision, Yevloyev and his colleagues continued to publish Ingushetiya, whose server is based in the United States.

In August, Ingushetiya Editor-in-Chief Roza Malsagova fled Russia after enduring harassment, threats, and beatings in the hands of Ingush authorities. Faced with a politically motivated criminal case on charges of “incitement of ethnic hatred” and “distribution of extremist materials,” Malsagova is seeking asylum in Western Europe.

While federal authorities have largely contained separatist conflict in Chechnya, violence has flared in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Zyazukov’s administration has worked hard to repress news about tensions in the southern republic, CPJ research shows, and has stood by as journalists and human rights activists have been abducted, beaten, harassed, and threatened.

In January, police in Nazran rounded up nine journalists and two human rights defenders and detained them at the local police headquarters for several hours, preventing them from reporting on an opposition protest. Two of the journalists were badly beaten. Three months earlier, three Moscow-based REN-TV channel correspondents and a human rights activist were kidnapped by a group of about 15 men in camouflage from a hotel in Nazran and taken close to the border with Chechnya, where they were severely beaten.

In a recent case, Zurab Tsechoyev, editor of the human rights Web site Mashr, was abducted from his home by about 50 men in camouflage, taken to the local federal security service headquarters in Magas, where he was severely beaten and threatened. Tsechoyev was hospitalized with a broken leg and kidney injuries.

Yevloyev, 37, is survived by a wife and three young children.