Arson Attack on Office of Russian Rights Group

Hours before dawn today, masked arsonists torched the Ingushetia office of Russia’s leading human rights organization, Memorial. Despite fire fighters’ efforts, it’s now little more than scorched debris.

This despicable attack likely has everything to do with Memorial’s work in neighboring Chechnya and its efforts to secure the release of  Oyub Titiev, Memorial’s Chechnya director, who was arrested last week by Chechen authorities on bogus drug possession charges.

For many years, Memorial’s Ingushetia office has been home to those documenting abuses during and after the war in Chechnya – Russians and foreigners, journalists and human rights investigators. The office opened in 2000, as Ingushetia was flooded with people fleeing Chechnya. It’s where we interviewed countless victims of torture and grieving relatives of people forcibly disappeared or extra-judicially executed, in earlier years by Russian military and security officials, and then by Moscow-sponsored Chechen authorities.

Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya through brutal repression with the Kremlin’s blessing for more than a decade; as he stepped up his vicious crackdown against even the mildest critics in recent years, some witnesses felt safer sharing their stories outside Chechnya – and Ingushetia is just next door.

Footage from a security camera outside Memorial’s office in the town of Nazran showed that at 3:35 a.m. on January 17, a car stopped by the two-story building and two men in face masks got out, carrying what looked like a plastic canister. One of them put up a ladder to the office window and started climbing up. After they were no longer visible on camera, they apparently broke the window to enter the premises, doused the room with a flammable liquid, and set it on fire. The camera recorded them climbing down, getting into their car and driving off. Fire fighters arrived and stopped the fire from consuming all of the office and the rest of the building. A police investigation is ongoing.

After Titiev’s brazen arrest, two leading Memorial representatives and a defense attorney from Moscow arrived in Ingushetia. They’ve been making the 90-minute drive to Chechnya every morning to work on the case, and then returning at night. They told me they were experiencing harassment and surveillance while going about their business in Chechnya.

Titiev’s arrest is clearly aimed at punishing him for his human rights work and forcing Memorial to stop exposing abuses by Chechen authorities. Given these circumstances, the arson attack on Memorial’s office is surely no coincidence.