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Journalist's death in North Caucasus calls for independent investigation

On July 31, 26-year-old reporter, blogger, and civil activist Timur Kuashev disappeared in Nalchik, the regional capital of Russia's North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkariya. When such news breaks in the volatile region--where journalists and human rights defenders are slaughtered regularly and with impunity--families prepare for the worst. The next day, a body resembling Kuashev's turned up in a forested area on the outskirts of Nalchik. The journalist's parents confirmed that it was indeed their son, and a nightmare for every parent unfolded--an autopsy, a preliminary investigation, and waiting for results that would show how the young, athletic man had suddenly died of what officials concluded was heart-related problems.

Twenty days later, Kuashev's family, friends, and colleagues are still waiting. Along with the grief, more questions are arising that show the need for a thorough, independent investigation into the circumstances of Kuashev's untimely death.

Kuashev, a special correspondent for the North Caucasus independent magazine DOSH (Word) and a blogger on the popular Russian platform LiveJournal, regularly criticized the policies of regional authorities, particularly law enforcement. He also defended civil liberties such as the right to freedom of assembly, and protested a ban on wearing hijab in the North Caucasus region of Stavropol, according to local journalists.

He had had run-ins with Nalchik police. He was briefly detained in May, and on being released he reported having been threatened by police in connection with his blog posts, the independent regional website Kavkazsky Uzel reported at the time. The journalist said police officers had told him, "Continue on this path and this will bite you in the ass," Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

Kuashev had also reported receiving threats, including through social media, according to the local press. The threats worried him enough to file a claim with the local police in 2013. One particular post--still available on LiveJournal-- by a blogger using the name Kaisynoff published Kuashev's pictures and personal information, and painted him as an "extremist," who needs "medical treatment" for his ideas. Some of the comments on that post contained threats of physical violence against Kuashev. However, Kuashev's claim was not addressed, according his colleagues. DOSH magazine staff said they believe he had been under surveillance in the days before his death. "We are absolutely sure that [Kuashev's death] is directly related to his professional activities," DOSH editor Abdulla Duduev told state-controlled NTV. "He was under constant surveillance, and he was regularly threatened."

When Kuashev's body was found, authorities immediately said that it bore no signs of violence. An initial exam showed that Kuashev appeared to have died of heart failure, but that caused suspicion among his family and friends, who knew the journalist as an energetic, athletic young man who regularly exercised and had not complained about his health, the local press reported.

Preliminary results of an autopsy, released on August 15, showed a strange needle prick, such as from an injection, under Kuashev's left arm, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported. The Kabardino-Balkariya branch of Russia's Investigative Committee--the country's agency tasked with probing serious crimes--is looking into Kuashev's death, ITAR-TASS said. "A medical analysis is to be carried out in Moscow in the most immediate future," Valery Ustov, the branch's head, told ITAR-TASS. "We cannot yet say with certainty that this was a murder."

Given the region's atrocious record on solving journalist murders--since 2000, 10 journalists have been slain in the North Caucasus, and in none of the cases have the perpetrators been brought to justice--Kuashev's death must be investigated by independent detectives in order to ensure the probe's fairness and effectiveness.

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