Trump’s Blank Check to Tyrants Endangers Rights Advocates in Russia and Beyond
The abduction and beating of an Amnesty International observer shows that under Putin the people charged with law enforcement have no respect at all for the law.
In the age of Trump authoritarians, dictators and tyrants become more shameless by the day. As if the disappearance and likely dismemberment of a Saudi journalist writing for The Washington Post is not enough of a scandal, we now have Vladimir Putin's underlings allegedly kidnapping, beating, and terrorizing an observer from Amnesty International, acting as if they are sure there will be no consequences.
Probably they are right.
This article by Anna Nemtsova, Moscow correspondent for The Daily Beast, gives an idea how hard it is to report on human rights when the American president makes it clear he's just not interested.
MOSCOW — Leaders of many post-Soviet republics and ex-communist fiefdoms share a common feature: they are easily offended. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and others whose countries were once part of the Bloc, with all the authority given to them, feel vulnerable under the pressure of civil society’s harsh criticism. Critical reports by independent observers, journalists and human rights defenders are seen as a personal betrayal. And once leaders run out of patience, they begin to ban the critics, they use violence, and they stop pretending that they are not dictators. Meanwhile, the lists of their victims are growing.
Amnesty International observer Oleg Kozlovsky arrived in the troubled Russian state of Ingushetia in the Northern Caucasus on Oct. 5 to report on mass protests against a deal local authorities had made with Chechen leader Kadyrov. The next day, several men in medical masks abducted Kozlovsky from his hotel, took his cell phone and video camera from him and drove the researcher to an empty field. The masked men beat Kozlovsky, broke his rib, and threatened to kill him if he did not agree to be an informant for the Center for Combating Extremism, known as “Center E,” at the Russian Interior Ministry.
Kozlovsky survived the beatings and humiliations but immediately fled Russia with his family. The trip to Ingushetia was his first assignment for Amnesty International, a group awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace that is supported by millions of activists around the globe.
In a phone interview, Kozlovsky told The Daily Beast, “They forced me to strip naked and lie on the ground with my face down. They made like it was an execution – I felt their guns at the back of my head. They demanded that I become an informant for their law enforcement agency but I refused to work for them,” Kozlovsky said. “Then they yelled they would kill my two children, if I ever tell anyone about the abduction.”
Under President Putin’s rule, Russian law enforcement agencies have violated human rights for years. Police are rarely held accountable for abducting, torturing or “disappearing” people. North Caucasus hit teams seasoned in two Chechen wars now work for law enforcement agencies although they have no respect for the law. But Kozlovsky’s nightmare was unique even for Russia: for the first time a representative of an international group was abducted and nearly killed. “My abduction is the result of authoritarian rule,” he said. “No laws work, criminals often remain unpunished, confident that they are free to break any laws.”
These days Ingushetia, a tiny republic on the border with Chechnya, is an example to the rest of Russia: thousands of people come out to protest in its capital, Magas, against authorities making decisions while ignoring public opinion. Some protesters are religious Salafi Muslim groups, others come from the more secular political opposition. Most of the activists believe that the controversial agreement made with Kadyrov for a swap of agricultural land was against their republic’s interest, a reasonable protest. But, clearly, authorities do not like the idea of independent observers at the opposition rallies, especially if there’s a police crackdown. Kozlovsky went to Ingushetia to see how local people enjoyed their constitutional right, their freedom of assembly, and then came the reprisal.
Somebody must have decided that by threatening Kozlovsky they could scare other reporters and activists away, and they were not far wrong.
“Because of Kozlovsky’s abduction, I cannot stay in Ingushetia tonight – it is not safe for human rights defenders here,” Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia told The Daily Beast. Lokshina arrived in Ingushetia that morning but had to leave after speaking with protesters.
Today the human rights of all Russians are threatened. There is no public control over the state police agencies, and it seems that the Kremlin has no intention of stopping violence against human rights activists.
The handwriting has been on the wall, and often in blood, for a long time. In November 2007 Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial Human Rights Center, was dragged out of his hotel room in the the Ingush city of Nazran. Just like Kozlovsky, he ended up in some nowhere land with a black plastic bag over his head, barefoot, freezing. “The purpose is always the same: to threaten us, so we would not come back to the region to report, to be with people in crises,” Lokshina said.
Nothing has been done to investigate the assassination of one of Russia’s and Chechnya’s leading human rights defenders, Natalia Estemirova. In July 2009, when she was the head of the human rights center Memorial, she was abducted as she walked out of her apartment building in Grozny. They found her body later that day in Ingushetia. It was riddled with bullets.
In 2012 Putin signed the “foreign agents” law, which requires all non-governmental organizations with foreign funding to re-register as an entity “carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.” The legislation encouraged law enforcement agencies to put pressure on NGOs but it did not describe any penalty for abusing them. “I asked my abductors from the ‘Center E,’ if they have ever tried to obey the law but they said they preferred that unlawful wild way of threatening to show their power,” Kozlovsky told The Daily Beast.
This year was increasingly dangerous in Northern Caucasus, a mostly Muslim region with a population of some 10 million people: human rights activists, journalists and local activists faced arrests, arson and murder.
Kozlovsky’s nightmare lasted for two hours. After beating and humiliating him, the masked men drove their victim out of Ingushetia to the neighboring republic of North Ossetia-Alania. They told Kozlovsky to never come back to Ingushetia.
“There is no doubt, that Russian officials abducted Kozlovsky, since no other men with guns could pass through the checkpoint between Ingushetia and North Ossetia,” Lokshina pointed out.
Before President Trump came to power, Washington was the beacon of hope for many human rights defenders. But earlier this year Trump’s administration withdrew the U.S. from United Nations Human Rights Council and joined North Korea, Iran and Eritrea, the only countries not participating in the council’s meetings.
In places like Russia’s North Caucasus, where authorities torture and gun down LGBT and other public activists, the White House is no longer a source of support – and yet, anyone reporting on human rights abuses, whether as a journalist or part of an NGO or activist group faces accusations they’re U.S. State department agents.
Even so, violence against Amnesty International took Russia’s violations of human rights to a different level. "This is the first case of our monitor's abduction in many years; it illustrates the climate of impunity in the region, which is life threatening for human rights activists,” Amnesty International’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers, told The Daily Beast. “Right now the head of Chechen Memorial, Oyub Titiyev, is on trial, facing years of prison, and now our monitor has been beaten violently. We call for Russian authorities to investigate this case.”