14 March 2020
Elena Milashina is editor of Novaya Gazeta’s special projects section and a Moscow Helsinki Group prizewinner
Over a month has passed since the attack on me and the lawyer Marina Dubrovina in Grozny. In accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation, as victims we have done everything to ensure that this crime is recorded and investigated. We immediately went to doctors, the police, the Russian Investigative Committee and the Russian Federation’s Commissioner for Human Rights.
My colleagues, in turn, contacted President Putin’s press secretary with a request for a comment on the situation and on why human rights defenders, journalists and now lawyers too are regularly attacked in Chechnya, who are forced to appeal for government protection to do their work “in the safest area in the country” (as Marina Dubrovina did). “That’s not really a question for the Kremlin. That’s a question for the law enforcement agencies”, Dmitry Peskov answered.
Unfortunately, Mr Peskov did not explain what kind of law enforcement agencies he meant. And since there are a huge number of law enforcement officers about in our country, Marina and I had to go to Grozny ourselves in order to find the exact state body that would take responsibility for investigating this crime.
Oleg Orlov, head of the “Hot Spots’ programme at the Memorial Human Rights Centre, flew with us to Chechnya. Kostya Gusev, who works at the Committee against Torture, met us when we arrived.
Each of us had our own experience of war while working in Chechnya. What a cheerful group we were…
We started our search operation at Police Station No. 1 of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Grozny. It was here that our reports of the attack were officially registered on 7 February. We had several questions: who exactly (which investigator) is conducting the investigation, what procedural decision has been taken (all legal deadlines for the decision have already expired), and why we were not informed for a whole month about how the attack was being investigated. Marina and I were let through the checkpoints at Police Station No. 1 rather quickly (it must be said that it is not easy for ordinary citizens to get into the grounds of Chechen police stations: in the “most peaceful region of Russia” the police, the Investigative Committee, the prosecutor’s office and the courts continue to exist in a wartime regime and are real fortresses). In the office, some young women spent a long time looking into the fate of our applications (the crime log numbers issued during the registration process had not made their way through into the database). And they were very surprised that Marina and I were the victims of an attack almost in the centre of Grozny.
“Are you sure than you were attacked in Grozny?” asked a young woman wearing a hijab and a fashionable dress that went down to the ground, but with police stripes.
“Of course I am!” I answered.
“How did you manage that?” a second young woman asked in genuine surprise. She was wearing a bow on her head and her uniform was an even more fashionable dress, obviously made to measure.
“That citizen doesn’t like us”, I said, pointing at the portraits hanging on the wall of Akhmat and Ramzan Kadyrov.
The young women didn’t ask any more questions.
Finally, a 30-minute search of the police station produced the following information.
Our statements regarding the attack were recorded on the night of 7 February. On that same day, police agent Ayub Dokuyev put them in a pile and sent them to the Lenin district bureau of the Investigative Committee of the Chechen Republic. The Lenin district bureau received our applications on Monday 10 February, and had already thrown them straight back at Dokuyev by 12th. From 31 Gaydabaev street (Police Station No. 1) to 9B Garazhnaya street (Leninsky district Investigative Committee bureau) it’s about 11 minutes by car, or slightly more than a kilometer. Our statements spent 8 days travelling this huge distance. (“You were lucky though, usually the mail goes via Grozny and stays there for one or two months,” one of the young women in the police office told us). On 19 February our statements finally reached the police station and … that very day were sent to the Lenin district prosecutor’s office. Or so, at least, the female police officer told us: “On 19th February, district police officer Shamil Sabiev withdrew your applications for transfer to the prosecutor’s office of the Lenin district.”
“And where are our documents now?” asked Dubrovina’s lawyer, smiling.
“Try searching the prosecutor’s office,” the young women advised us.
The Lenin district prosecutor’s office is located in the building adjacent to Police Station No. 1. That’s to say, no more than one minute away at a normal walking speed. They allowed us inside and told us to go up to the second floor to an office. In the office we said that, on the advice of the spokesman for the president of the Russian Federation, we were trying to find a law enforcement agency brave enough to start an investigation into the attack on us in Grozny. But first, we needed to find the statements themselves, the traces of which had been lost in the Lenin district prosecutor’s office.
“We are open to visitors today,” the young woman in the office told us to our delight. “Are you looking for a prosecutor?”
The Lenin District Prosecutor Dmitry Pikhulya, a dapper-looking young man, was incredulous regarding our allegations that, from 7 February to 11 March, no one had notified us as applicants about the progress of work on our statements.
“I will immediately order an investigation, and if everything is as you say, then the guilty will be held accountable.”
“What do you mean ‘if everything is as we say’?” asked Marina Dubrovina. “Don’t you believe us?”
“As far as I can tell, your statements were, on the decision of the Chechen Republic Prosecutor Sharpuddy Muaidovich Abdul-Kadyrov, removed from the police station and transferred to the Investigative Committee for subsequent investigation. In connection with the public outcry, you could say,” explained Pukhulya.
“And the Investigative Committee immediately returned these statements back to the police. And from the police they were immediately claimed by the Lenin district prosecutor’s office, which you lead. It was 19 February, and since then neither the Investigative Committee nor the police have had access to these materials and cannot carry out an investigation. That’s to say, it turns out that it is the Chechen prosecutor’s office that is impeding the investigation? Did I understand correctly?” I asked Pukhulya.
“You are asking me some rather journalistic questions,” answered Dmitry Anatolievich, and seemed offended. “Your applications were taken to the prosecutor’s office to be looked at, and after examination it was decided to send the material to the Investigative Committee for verification.”
“Dmitry Anatolievich, there’s nothing in the examination materials except our statements and our documents from the medical emergency clinic. How much time does the Chechen prosecutor’s office need to review these papers? It’s already been 20 days since 19 February. Does the Chechen prosecutor’s office know Russian well enough?”
“Again with the journalist questions!” Pikhulya said angrily.
“My questions are a logical person’s questions,” I said, at my wits’ end. “Or maybe illiterate people work at the Chechen prosecutor’s office? Maybe the prosecutor’s office is playing some kind of ping-pong game, tossing our statements back and forth between the police and the Investigative Committee, so neither can investigate this crime? Why? It’s obvious. A month later, there will be a response to the investigator’s request for images from video cameras that recorded the attack and the attackers: due to the amount of time that has passed since the attack, the footage wasn’t saved, was written over, or was destroyed. When investigating a crime, time is crucial. The actions of the Chechen prosecutor’s office have made it so that a crime that could have been investigated in one day — they just needed to acquire and view the video recordings from the surveillance cameras — is left unsolved. The evidence is most likely lost. The criminals are at large. Moreover, not only has no criminal case been opened regarding the attack on us, there has been no decision as to who will do the investigating at this stage, the police or the Investigative Committee, and no decision on who precisely will be the investigating officer will be leading the work. Do you think this is normal?”
“Write a complaint and address it to me,” Pikhulya responded. “We will give you all the answers in writing.”
The next day, 12 March, we received a response to our complaint. In this response, they said that over the course of the month, our statements had been transferred from the police to the prosecutor’s office, from the prosecutor’s office to the Investigative Committee, from the Investigative Committee to the police, from the police to the prosecutor’s office, and on 10 March (by some strange coincidence, precisely the day before we arrived in Chechnya) from the prosecutor’s office back to the Investigative Committee. And apparently we were notified every time they were transferred. If we didn’t get any notification? Take it up with the Russian Post.
“Thus, the allegations of violations of your rights were not confirmed.”
On 12 March, after we had already left Chechnya, I received a call from Ayub Taramov, from the Office of Criminal Investigations of the Chechen Republic’s Investigative Committee. Taramov said that he was tasked with leading the investigation into the attack on us. The Investigator invited me and the lawyer Marina Dubrovina to provide detailed evidence. I responded by saying that we would be back in Chechnya soon. In the meantime, let him take action and at least request video recordings from the 27 surveillance cameras in the Continent Hotel, where we were attacked.
“It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get these recordings, but try anyway. Just do something already!” I urged the investigator.
“Why are you so sure that there aren’t any recordings?” Taramov asked. “I, for one, am certain that we’ll get them.”
“Let’s bet a bottle of champagne!” I proposed.
That’s how we resolved that.
I believe it’s high time for the Russian Post to file a lawsuit against Russian law enforcement agencies to protect their business reputation. I am ready to be a witness for our post officers in this trial.