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

March 10, 2016

Armed men raided the office of a prominent human rights group in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus hours after an attack on journalists visiting the group sparked international outrage, activists said Thursday.

Video footage posted online by Dmitry Utukin, a lawyer for the Committee to Prevent Torture rights group, showed several camouflaged armed men breaking security cameras at the group’s office in the town of Karabulak in the Ingushetia region.

“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 late Wednesday and the rights group told AFP none of the staff had yet visited the office since the attack.

The assault came just hours after masked men attacked a group of journalists en route to the neighbouring region of Chechnya on a press trip organised by the group.

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

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

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

A representative of the Norwegian embassy in Moscow, Olav-Nils Thue, told AFP that Windstad had been “severely beaten” and 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.”

Persson Lofgren said she sustained several large bruises and a gash on her thigh after being beaten and thrown onto an iron girder.

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 attack on journalists as “absolutely disgraceful.”

“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.”

Peskov later told Russian news agencies that President Vladimir Putin had ordered the interior ministry to seek to shed light on the circumstances of the incident.

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.

Some 20 people, including journalists and political activists, gathered Thursday in front of the offices of Putin’s chief of staff in Moscow to support a series of lone picketers condemning the attack.

A spokesman for police in Ingushetia, Dzhabrail Shaukhalov, told AFP that the authorities had not been notified of the attack on the NGO’s office.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, refused comment when contacted on Thursday.

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

A similar attack was carried out against the group’s Grozny office last year when masked men stormed the building and ransacked the NGO’s office, forcing employees to flee through a window.

Attackers also torched the group’s office in December 2014 after it criticised 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.