On December 15, 2011, a masked assailant fired 14 shots at Gadzhimurad Kamalov, founder of the independent weekly Chernovik, as he was leaving work shortly before midnight. Kamalov, 46, died en route to a local hospital. A Chernovik staffer who witnessed the killing through an office window told CPJ that the assailant fled the scene in a Lada Priora.
Chernovik, the most popular newspaper in Dagestan, is known for its independence and courageous coverage of government corruption, human rights abuses, and Islamic radicalism. From 2008 until 2011, Chernovik and five of its journalists, including then-editor and 2010 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Nadira Isayeva, were subjected to a politically motivated prosecution on trumped-up “extremism” charges stemming from the paper’s critical coverage of regional police and the federal security service. The journalists were acquitted of the charges in May 2011.
Chernovik’s Abdulmumin Gadzhiev was detained in June 2019 on charges of terrorism and extremism, according to CPJ’s research.
Chernovik editor Biyakai Magomedov told CPJ that Kamalov had not disclosed threats against him before his death. A family member of the journalist told the regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel that threats had been commonplace since the Chernovik launched in 2003.
“Since the time Chernovik started publishing, there have been a number of threats, and he had foes,” Khadzhimurad Radzhabov, a cousin and colleague of Kamalov, told Kavkazsky Uzel.
In television interviews before his death, Kamalov had made critical comments about alleged regional government corruption. “Dagestan is sinking into idleness, into misguided scattering of federal money,” Kavkazsky Uzel quoted Kamalov as saying in a February interview with the national television channel NTV. “You would not see a single Russian region with a bigger quantity of restaurants, banquet halls, saunas, casinos, and hookah parlors as Makhachkala.”
Kamalov’s name was among 16 included on a “death list” published anonymously and distributed in the form of a handout in Makhachkala in September 2009, according to Russian press reports. The handout, which named eight journalists among its targets, called for “destruction of the bandits and revenge for police officers and peaceful citizens.”
In June 2020, Russian media reported that the Russian Investigative Committee, the country’s top investigative body, completed a probe into Kamalov’s killing. The investigators alleged that Dagestan’s former deputy prime minister, Shamil Isaev, masterminded the killing while local residents identified as Murad Shuaibov, Magomed Khazamov, and Mahomed Abigasanov committed it, according to those reports. All four men as well as Kamalov were reportedly from the same village of Sogratl in the Gubinsky region of Dagestan.
The investigators said that the reports on local corruption published in Chernovik under Kamalov’s editorship damaged Isaev’s political interests when he was a member of Dagestan’s legislature. Isaev promised 1 million rubles (approximately US$32,200 in 2011) and profits from businesses to each executioner for the killing, according to those reports.
The investigators said that Shuaibov, Khazamov, and Abigasanov followed Kamalov and initially planned to kill him in his home, but changed the plan and shot him near the Chernovik office. Khazamov shot Kamalov first, then Shuaibov made a final lethal shot, according to the Russian daily Kommersant.
In 2015, Shuaibov was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in jail for the killing of another Dagestani journalist, Abdulmalik Akhmedilov. In December 2018, Khazamov was sentenced to three years in jail on unrelated drug and weapons charges, according to Kommersant.
The Yessentuki city court ordered Abigasanov‘s arrest in 2011, and he went into hiding until spring 2019, when he turned himself in and was placed under pre-trial arrest, according to Kommersant.
In January 2020, a Moscow court sentenced Isaev to four years and six months in jail for fraud, an unrelated charge which he denied, according to media reports. On July 3, a Moscow court ordered Isaev, already imprisoned on the other charges, to be subject to technical arrest for two months pending an investigation into his alleged involvement in Kamalov’s killing, according to Kavkazsky Uzel.
On September 29, 2020, the Russian Investigative Committee officially closed the investigation into Kamalov’s killing and sent it to the General Prosecutor’s Office to confirm the indictment and pass it to the court, according to news reports.
The first court session in the trial of Isaev, Shuaibov, Khazamov, and Abigasanov was held on December 17, 2020, according to court records.
On July 1, 2022, the Southern District Military Court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced Isaev and Abigasanov to 16 years in prison, Shuaibov to 23 years, and Khazamov to 24 years for their alleged roles in the killing, according to Chernovik and media reports.
Those reports said that government prosecutors did not prove that Isaev had a motive to order the killing, and ignored all evidence by the defense, including Isaev, Shuaibov, and Khazamov’s alibis.
Magdi Kamalov, the journalist’s brother and the publisher of Chernovik, was quoted repeatedly on Chernovik’s Telegram account and wrote in the newspaper that he did not believe Isaev had masterminded the killing, and expressed doubts that Isaev, Shuaibov, and Khazamov were involved in the attack.
“Abigasanov is the only defendant who was really there that night. But he was not the only one who killed my brother,” he said on the outlet’s Telegram account.