The office of the Russian human rights association Memorial in the southern autonomous republic of Ingushetia was gutted by an arson attack in what looks like part of an organised campaign to chase the NGO out of the North Caucasus.
Memorial posted on YouTube security camera footage showing two masked men climbing into the organisation’s office in the town of Nazran and setting three rooms on fire. The attack came a week after the arrest of Oyub Tityev, the head of Memorial’s branch in Chechnya, on drug charges his supporters say are fabricated.
Memorial’s office in Nazran has reported on human rights violations in the region for more than 17 years.
Amnesty International called the incident a “vicious attack” and part of a “coordinated assault” against Memorial.
Titiyev, 60, was detained on 9 January by police who claimed to have found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.
In a letter addressed to Putin and made public on January 16, Titiyev said he was innocent, accused police of planting the drugs, and voiced concern that he could be tortured or his family threatened in an effort to extract a confession.
“The Russian authorities, who have long sought to silence Memorial from speaking out on human rights issues, must launch a thorough and effective investigation…and bring those responsible to justice,” Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director for research, said in a statement. “Any failure to do so would raise suspicions about the authorities’ possible involvement.”
Human rights activists say that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the restive region, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for his 5,000-man security forces. They also charge that Kadyrov has been responsible for abuses that include kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and the killing of his political opponents.
Natalya Estemirova, who was Titiyev’s predecessor at Memorial in Chechnya, and who was investigating alleged rights abuses in the republic by regional authorities and Russian military forces, was abducted and killed in 2009.
Kremlin critics say Putin turns a blind eye to abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution by Kadyrov because he relies on the former rebel to control separatist sentiments and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin played down Memorial’s problems. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it would be wrong to draw any generalised conclusions about the detention of the Memorial activist, saying that only investigators were in a position to judge the nature of the allegations against him.
Peskov also cautioned against making a link between the detention and the recent arson attack, saying the incidents had occurred in two different regions.