15 September 2016, 17:40

Reporters Without Borders: Young independent journalist jailed arbitrarily in Chechnya

The three-year jail sentence that Chechen journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev received on a charge of drug possession on 5 September was clearly a politically-motivated punishment for his reporting and, as such, was the latest offensive in Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s war against independent journalism.

A young contributor to the independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel, Geriyev was convicted by Chechnya’s Shali district court almost solely on the basis of a forced confession that he retracted during the trial.

Sham trial

The prosecution claimed that Geriyev was arrested in possession of more than 150 grams of cannabis that he was about to smoke. But the case was riddled with contradictions and procedural violations.

The court systematically ignored defence testimony confirming that three plainclothesmen kidnapped Geriyev from a minibus that was taking him from a town in the interior of Chechnya to the capital, Grozny, from where he had planned to travel to Moscow for work-related reasons.

Geriyev told the court that his abductors took him to a wood where they beat him, tortured him and interrogated him. They then confiscated his backpack and took him to a cemetery on the outskirts of the village of Kurchaloi, where they finally extracted his “confession” and placed him under arrest.

“This trumped-up case against Zhalaudi Geriyev must be overturned,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“His conviction is the latest example of the mounting harassment of the few remaining independent journalists in Chechnya. With Moscow’s blessing, Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime is plunging ever deeper into a spiral of repression. Russia, which itself shows little respect for media freedom, encourages the continuing existence of this black spot where it has become nearly impossible for journalists to operate.”

Escalating harassment of critics

Independent journalism has been almost completely eradicated in Chechnya, an autonomous Russian republic that was traumatized by two bloody wars and has been ruled with an iron hand by Kadyrov since 2007.

The complete impunity with which well-known journalist and human rights defender Natalya Estemirova was murdered in 2009 reinforced the climate of fear that reigns in the region, one that RSF described in two successive reports in 2009 and 2011.

Any journalist nowadays daring to defy the official consensus and obligatory pro-government enthusiasm is warned or threatened, and pressure is put on relatives. Harassment of critics has intensified in the past year. The least comment on social networks is now liable to have dire consequences.

Public figures of all kinds are liable to be abducted. Ruslan Martagov, a political analyst critical of the human rights situation in Chechnya, “disappeared” from 1 to 3 September. Two academics were kidnapped in late March and early April only to reappear and make public “apologies.” A third, tortured and then released, now leads the life of a recluse.

The resident of a remote mountain village who, in a video posted online in May, complained about conditions in the village and the lack of interest by the authorities ended up apologizing to Kadyrov after a campaign of harassment in which his home was set on fire and neighbours branded him as an “enemy.” A woman who had criticized Kadyrov on Whatsapp was forced by the president to deliver a humiliating “explanation” of her behaviour on state television in December 2015.

A new threshold was crossed when a minibus carrying Russian and foreign journalists and members of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture was attacked in neighbouring Ingushetia, just a few hundred metres from the Chechen border, on 9 March of this year. A score of masked men beat the passengers, forced them get out of the bus, and then set fire to it.

Kadyrov often describes independent journalists and members of Russia’s liberal opposition as “traitors” and “enemies of the people.”

Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

Original statement posted on Reporters Without Borders website on September 8, 2016.

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