The fire in the building of the Central Exhibition Hall in Sukhumi. Photo by the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Abkhazia

22 January 2024, 23:57

Week in the Caucasus: review of main events of January 15-21, 2024

Pressure on journalists in Azerbaijan, persecution of pacifists and activists in Southern Russia, murder of imam in Chechnya, fire in an art gallery, explosion in a furniture workshop, destroyed cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh, and official data on the natives of Southern Russia who perished in Ukraine, – see the review of these and other events in the Caucasus during the week of January 15-21, 2024, prepared by the “Caucasian Knot”.

Pressure on journalists in Azerbaijan

On January 16, Azerbaijani activists and journalists in exile, alarmed by the increasing repression of government critics in Azerbaijan, launched a civil coalition in Europe to seek an international response. The authorities of Azerbaijan should drop charges against arrested journalists of the “Abzas Media” publication and the “Kanal-13” online TV Channel and release them, the International and European Federations of Journalists state.

From November 20 to December 14, 2023, the “Abzas Media” journalists, including director Ulvi Gasanli, editor-in-chief Sevindj Vagifgyzy, activist Mokhammed Kekalov, who cooperated with the publication, and journalists Nargiz Absalamova and Khafiz Babaly were arrested. They are accused of currency smuggling, as the police found 40,000 euros in the editorial office during a search. On January 13, Elnara Gasimova was detained on the same charge. In addition, on November 27, Aziz Orudjev, the director of the “Kanal-13”, was detained on the charges of unsanctioned construction and currency smuggling. Journalist Shamo Eminov was also arrested in the same criminal case.

Shamo Eminov claimed that the charge of smuggling was unfounded, but the court in Baku left him in custody. The Court of Appeal in Baku approved the decision to arrest journalist Elnara Gasimova and dismissed the complaint about the refusal to transfer journalist Khafiz Babala to house arrest.

Elnara Gasimova foresaw her arrest and prepared a message to the country’s authorities and her colleagues in advance with a reaction to her arrest, her husband said. Elnara Gasimova has expressed her confidence that the voice of independent journalism cannot be drowned out by persecution and called on her colleagues not to be afraid of arrests.

Political commentator Shakhin Rzaev was arrested for 15 days on the charge of petty hooliganism. Activists and journalists questioned the justice of the charge. On January 16, the political commentator was released, as the court commuted his arrest to a fine. Shakhin Rzaev connected his persecution with his post on a social network and explained his early release by saying that the “misunderstood” post had already been deleted.

Persecution of pacifists and activists in Southern Russia

The Kotelnikovsky District Court of the Volgograd Region sentenced local resident Vasily Melnikov to five years of imprisonment with a three-year ban on administering Internet websites in the case on distributing fakes about the Russian Armed Forces.

Taganrog resident Irina Skorovarova has been charged in the case on repeated discrediting of the Russian Armed Forces. The part of the article on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces under which Irina Skorovarova’s case is instituted provides for up to five years of imprisonment. In 2023, Irina Skorovarova was fined under the administrative article on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces for her post on the “Odnoklassniki” social network.

A second protocol has been drawn up against Natalia Dorozhnova, a pensioner from Volgograd, under the article on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. The police considered her words in the interview that Natalia Dorozhnova gave at the end of the trial to discredit the Russian Army.

The Nalchik City Court received an administrative case against Rameta Lakunova about discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.

A protocol was drawn up against Asker Allolo, a resident of the Tuapse District of the Krasnodar Territory, under the article on discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for posting several pacifist videos on a social network. Entries appeared on the page back in July 2022. The district court twice returned the case materials to the police, since they did not provide evidence of the offense. As a result, the case was returned to the police for the third time.

Murder of imam in Chechnya

On January 14, it became known that in the village of Voskresenovskoye in the Shelkovsky District in Chechnya, Mullah Abdurakhim Gakaev was stabbed to death in front of his child. According to sources, the motive could be blood feud. An opposition channel denied the above version. The police detained 30-year-old suspect Turpal-Ali Shamurzaev.

The alleged killer looks like a mentally ill person who mistook a far-fetched motive for a guide to action. However, the suspect appealed to the authorities of Chechnya with a similar motive of fighting against sorcerers and sought their support. The crime is connected with the general atmosphere of cruelty in the republic, point out experts and human rights defenders.

Relatives of Turpal-Ali Shamurzaev stated that they were disgraced by the actions of their relative and expressed a desire to reconcile with relatives of the deceased man. The reconciliation took place in Kadi-Yurt. The reconciliation between the Abdurakhim Gakaev’s relatives and the killer’s family took place without coercion. An apology during such a procedure is not a disgrace to a family and is most often accepted, while the promise of renouncing blood feud cannot be broken, Caucasian experts note.

Fire in art gallery

More than 4000 paintings were destroyed by the fire which broke out on January 21 in the building of the Central Exhibition Hall in Sukhumi, where the National Art Gallery is located. Local residents reported on social networks that the paintings were stored in improper conditions.

The Ministry of Culture of Abkhazia reported that the fire completely destroyed the collection of the National Art Gallery, including paintings by first professional Abkhaz artist Alexander Chachba-Shervashidze, Varvara Bubnova, Olga Brendel, and many artists of Abkhazia and Russia of the 19th and 20th centuries.

All versions of the fire are being considered, including arson, reports the press service for the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of Abkhazia.

Explosion in furniture workshop

On January 15, an explosion and fire occurred in a furniture workshop in the Binagadi district of Baku. The bodies of nine dead were found at the place of the explosion, and other 24 people got injuries and burns.

On January 20, Adil Rustamov, born in 1996, who was injured in the fire, died in a hospital. So, the death toll has reached 10, the press service for the General Prosecutor’s Office reports.

Destroyed cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh

A memorial and cemetery were destroyed in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Aterk, which came under the Azerbaijani control, the Armenian organization “Monument Watch” reported. Tombstones in the cemetery in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Akaku were damaged, and several cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh have already been completely destroyed, the Nagorno-Karabakh Historical Environment Protection Service reports. Graves of civilians who died before the start of the war for Nagorno-Karabakh were also desecrated, a refugee from Stepanakert reported.

The authorities of Azerbaijan must respond to accusations of vandalism, since in the future, the video showing destruction of Armenian cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh will be used against Baku. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) should educate its soldiers and not allow them to fight with graves, political analysts note. The Azerbaijani MoD suggested that the videos posted on the Internet could be a provocation on the part of Armenia.

Official data on natives of Southern Russia perished in Ukraine

By January 21, the authorities and the law enforcement bodies reported about at least 3284 residents of Southern Russia perished in Ukraine, including 1602 residents of the North-Caucasian Federal District (NCFD) and 1682 residents of the Southern Federal District (SFD).

In Dagestan, the authorities reported about 720 local residents perished in Ukraine, in the Volgograd Region – 659, in the Rostov Region – 375, in the Krasnodar Territory – 291, in the Astrakhan Region – 257, in North Ossetia – 252, in Stavropol Territory – 267, in Chechnya – 171, in Kabardino-Balkaria – 116, in Kalmykia – 55, in Ingushetia – 46, in Adygea – 45, and in Karachay-Cherkessia – 30.

This article was originally published on the Russian page of 24/7 Internet agency ‘Caucasian Knot’ on January 22, 2024 at 09:10 am MSK. To access the full text of the article, click here.

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