Russia: Journalist Zhalaudi Geriev Punished for Chechnya Reporting
A court in Chechnya on September 5, 2016, sentenced a local independent journalist to three years in prison on dubious drug possession charges, Human Rights Watch has reported.
The journalist, Zhalaudi Geriev, worked for the Caucasian Knot, a Russian media portal covering current developments in the Caucasus and well known for its reporting on abuses by Chechen authorities. Geriev will appeal the sentence.
“We have no doubt that Geriev is being punished for his work as a journalist and hope that justice will prevail on appeal, ” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, has steadily tried to eradicate all forms of dissent and gradually built a tyranny within Chechnya. Kadyrov, who has been in this post since 2007 by virtue of appointment from the Kremlin, now faces elections on September 18 for the head, or governor, of Chechnya.
Chechen police detained Geriev, 23, on the morning of April 16. The journalist told the court that three armed men dragged him out of a shuttle bus en route from the town of Kurchaloi to Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, from which he intended to travel on to Moscow for work-related purposes.
The assailants entered the shuttle bus, hit him on his head, and dragged him into their car, a black Priora sedan, he said. They took away his two phones and his backpack with his identification documents, a laptop, and other personal belongings, tied his hands with wire, and drove him to a forest 35 kilometers from Grozny, in the Kurchaloi district of Chechnya.
Geriev’s kidnappers questioned him in the forest for another 30 to 40 minutes, asking him about his work, threatening him, and insinuating he was “on the run” to join ISIS. Then, another man arrived in a Priora vehicle, pulled a plastic bag tightly over Geriev’s head, took it off when Geriev was about to suffocate, and finally drove off, taking Geriev’s backpack with him. Then, Geriev’s kidnappers took him to a cemetery on the outskirts of the town of Kurchaloi. They had him officially “detained” there and taken into police custody supposedly with a large package of marijuana in his backpack, forcing him to sign a confession stating the drugs in his backpack belonged to him.
Geriev withdrew his confession during his trial in the Shali District Court of Chechnya, alleging that it was false and made under duress. The court failed to consider his allegations. Following a trial in which little if any evidence beyond his retracted confession was introduced, the court found Geriev guilty of “possession of banned substances in large quantities.”
Caucasian Knot, Human Rights Watch, and other groups aware of the case did not publicly highlight it before the verdict due to the wishes of his family. Grigory Shvedov, the Caucasian Knot chief editor, told Human Rights Watch that until Geriev’s sentencing, his immediate family had been strongly against any publicity. Shvedov said that in the first few weeks after Geriev’s detention, his parents hoped he would be released, based on informal assurances from some Chechen law enforcement officials. Once the case was moved to trial, Geriev’s family feared that any publicity could negatively affect his treatment in pretrial detention and result in a harsher sentence.
“The case against Geriev is clearly a fabrication, ” Shvedov told Human Rights Watch. “The authorities aim to punish Geriev for his professional activity and at the same time, discredit the journalist in the eyes of Chechen society.”
Geriev’s case is reminiscent of another high profile Chechnya case of manipulation of justice in retaliation for dissent. In 2014, the authorities pressed fraudulent drug possession charges against a 57-year-old local activist, Ruslan Kutaev, apparently in retaliation for his remarks about the Chechen leadership’s lack of commitment to commemorating the mass deportation of Chechens by the Soviet government during World War II. Kutaev was tortured in police custody, including beatings and electric shocks, and was eventually sentenced to four years in prison.
In the months before the Chechen elections, local authorities have been viciously and comprehensively cracking down on critics and anyone whose total loyalty to Kadyrov they deem questionable. The week before Geriev’s sentencing, Human Rights Watch published a 56-page report, “‘Like Walking a Minefield’: Vicious Crackdown on Critics in Russia’s Chechen Republic, ” describing in detail how the authorities punish and humiliate people who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies.
Russia’s authorities should immediately review Geriev’s case, including his abduction and allegations of abuse, and put a resolute end to the sweeping repression by Chechnya’s leadership, Human Rights Watch said.
“The crackdown on free expression has become particularly intense in the course of the pre-election year, and Geriev has become one of its victims, ” Lokshina said.