Russian blogger beaten and warned to leave Dagestan

New York, April 8, 2015–A Russian blogger is under police guard in hospital after being abducted and attacked by at least three masked men in Derbent, in the southern republic of Dagestan, on Sunday, according to news reports citing his account. Vyacheslav Starodubets was forced into a car and taken to the outskirts of the city where he said he was questioned, beaten, and warned to leave the region within three days, regional and international press reported.

Starodubets reported the incident to police, saying that he believes the attack was related to his reporting, regional press said. News reports said that Starodubets ran pages called Moi Derbent (My Derbent) and Zhemchuzhina Yuga (Pearl of the South) on Facebook and the Russian social networks VK (also known as VKontakte or In Touch) and Odnoklassniki (Classmates). He reported on social and economic problems in Derbent and criticized municipal authorities for their apparent inability to address them, the reports said. Starodubets, who is originally from Moscow, also worked for the press department of a Derbent museum, reports said.

“The attack on Vyacheslav Starodubets is the latest reminder that journalists working in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region face a high risk of violence,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “We call on authorities in the region to conduct a thorough, credible, and efficient investigation and hold the perpetrators of this attack to account.”

According to independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel, regional authorities placed armed police agents in Starodubets’ hospital ward and earlier today moved him from Derbent to a hospital in the regional capital, Makhachkala. The Dagestan branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, a federal agency tasked with investigating grave crimes, said in statement on its website it has started a preliminary investigation.

Starodubets told Kavkazsky Uzel in an interview published today that the attack took place at about noon on Sunday. The blogger said in the interview that as he was approaching the hotel he was staying in, two masked men tried to force him into a Lada Priora sedan with tinted windows. A third man emerged from the car to help when he saw the other attackers were struggling, Starodubets said.  

According to his account, Starodubets screamed for help, but nobody standing nearby or passing on the street came to his aid. Once inside the car, Starodubets said the attackers taped his eyes and hands, put a bag over his head, and drove to the mountainside where he was put in another vehicle and questioned about his personal information, his parents’ address, and his connection to regional parliament members. During the ordeal, Starodubets said, his attackers beat him on his arms and head, broke his nose, told him not to write anything about municipal officials, and urged him to leave the region within three days. Afterwards, the blogger said he was forced back into the first car and taken to the Derbent area where the attackers dropped him off. CPJ could not independently verify details of the attack.

Journalists working in Dagestan–a republic in Russia’s North Caucasus that also borders the Caspian Sea–have often faced harassment from officials, attacks, or been killed in connection to their work, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. At least four journalists have been murdered with impunity, in direct connection to their work, in Dagestan over the past decade, CPJ research shows.