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Rights group attacked in Russia’s Caucasus after assault on journalists

March 10, 2016

Armed men have attacked the office of a prominent human rights organisation in the volatile Russian region of Ingushetia, the group said Thursday, hours after an assault on journalists in the same area sparked international outrage.

Footage of the attack posted on Twitter by Dmitry Utukin, a lawyer for the Committee to Prevent Torture, appeared to show several camouflaged armed men breaking security cameras at the group’s office in the Ingush town of Karabulak.

“Armed men came to our office in five cars, one of them broke the security camera at the entrance. Three others came in through the window,” Utukin wrote.

Nobody was inside at the time of the break-in, which occurred late Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear whether anything was taken.

The assault came just hours after masked men attacked a group of journalists on a trip organised by the group in the bordering region of Chechnya.

Nine people, including five journalists, were en route to Grozny, Chechnya’s main city, when masked assailants stormed their minibus and later torched it with people’s belongings inside.

Journalists from Norway and Sweden, a lawyer for the NGO and the minibus driver were hospitalised with injuries, the group said late Wednesday.

Swedish radio correspondent Maria Persson Lofgren and Norwegian journalist Oystein Windstad were still being treated at a local hospital as of Thursday morning.

A representative of the Norwegian embassy in Moscow, Olav-Nils Thue, told AFP that Windstad had been “severely beaten” and that one of his legs was now in a cast.

“It was absolutely horrible,” Norwegian newspaper Ny Tid quoted Windstad as saying. “I thought I was going to die.”

Some of the journalists’ personal belongings, including their mobile phones and passports, were stolen during the attack.

– ‘Absolutely disgraceful’ –

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday condemned the “absolutely disgraceful” attack.

“We expect regional law enforcement bodies will take the most effective measures to search for and find the perpetrators of the attack and adequately ensure the safety of human rights workers and members of the media.”

Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups urged authorities to bring the attackers to justice promptly.

“Any delay in investigating this attack and prosecuting those responsible risks creating carte blanche for more violence against reporters and human rights activists in an already volatile region,” Human Rights Watch researcher Tanya Cooper said in a statement.

Local police spokesman Dzhabrail Shaukhalov told AFP that authorities had not been notified of the attack on the NGO’s office. Russia’s Investigative Committee refused comment when contacted on Thursday.

Founded in 2000, the Committee to Prevent Torture is one of the few NGOs active in Chechnya and offers legal support to torture victims.

A similar attack was carried out against the group’s Grozny office last year. Masked men who emerged from a crowd of protesters stormed the building and ransacked the NGO’s office, forcing employees to escape out a window.

The group’s office was also torched in December 2014 after it criticised Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov for urging collective punishment of the families of Islamist insurgents.

Rights activists and journalists investigating torture, kidnapping and war crimes in Chechnya are routinely threatened and harassed.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.