Russian Paper Appeals To Kremlin Over Chechnya 'Death Threat'

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- Investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta has appealed to the Kremlin and Russian police to step in after Chechnya's main government news agency printed what the newspaper described as a "direct death threat" aimed at one of its reporters.

Novaya Gazeta, an opposition-minded paper that has had two prominent contributors who worked in Chechnya assassinated in the last decade, said that an article in Grozny-Inform darkly predicting that its reporter Yelena Milashina will be killed amounts to a "crime."

Novaya Gazeta published the Grozny-Inform article on June 10, highlighting lines such as: "To all appearances, the next hero to give their life for 'defending human rights' in Russia will be Novaya Gazeta's special correspondent."

It said it wanted to draw the attention of President Vladimir Putin's administration to the "dangerous situation" faced by Milashina, who said on June 9 that she thought the article indicated there is an "order for my murder."

The Grozny-Inform article was published on May 19, after Milashina reported on plans for what she described as the forced marriage of a 17-year-old girl to an already married police officer who is decades older and is close to Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Late last year, Milashina reported on cases in which houses in Chechnya were torched after Kadyrov said homes of alleged militants suspected of attacks on officials and police would be razed.

Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, ...Milashina?

Grozny-Inform's ominous prediction came in a long opinion piece titled The United States Uses Pawns, which cast the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in February and the killing of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 as Western plots.

Several of the people convicted in Politkovskaya's killing or suspected in Nemtsov's are Chechens. In both cases, colleagues of the victims fear those behind the slayings will never be identified or prosecuted because, they believe, the trail could lead too close to the Kremlin or Kadyrov.

The Grozny-Inform article -- written by a deputy director of the news agency, Mavsar Varayev -- compares Politkovskaya to Milashina.

In May, after the marriage story drew worldwide attention, Novaya Gazeta's editors pulled Milashina out of Chechnya when Russian police officers advised her to be mindful of her personal safety, saying that Chechen police were aware of her whereabouts.

"This is not the last of the 'terrible things' that will happen to her," says the Grozny-Inform article, which remains online. 

A Public Call For Murder?

In an open note to police published by Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper's editors write that "Varayev even points to [those who would carry out] the proposed killing, providing an alibi for the real criminals in advance."

They then cite an excerpt from his article: "It's entirely likely that the next sacrificial victim will be Yelena Milashina herself, only the hit men this time won't be from the Caucasus. Most likely, the hit will be carried out by someone from a fascist organization."

Grozny-Inform was founded in 2002 and is run by the government of Chechnya. According to Novaya Gazeta, Kadyrov spokesman Alvi Karimov is influential in its editorial decisions.

Speaking to Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio on June 9, Milashina said she considered the article an open death threat. "It really is a message that there is an order for my murder," she said.

Milashina's reporting on Chechnya has increased scrutiny on Kadyrov, who rights activists say has been given leeway to violate Russian law because Putin relies on him to keep violence and separatism in check after two devastating wars in the region.

Politkovskaya's investigative reporting exposed rights abuses in Chechnya. Natalya Estemirova, a dogged rights activist who was based in Chechnya and contributed to Novaya Gazeta, was abducted and killed in 2009.