Out in the World: Russian human rights journalist and attorney savagely attacked

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday July 14, 2023
Share this Post:
Award-winning Russian investigative journalist Elena Milashina is shown bandaged in a Grozny hospital July 4 after being brutally attacked by masked assailants. Photo: Courtesy of Committee Against Torture
Award-winning Russian investigative journalist Elena Milashina is shown bandaged in a Grozny hospital July 4 after being brutally attacked by masked assailants. Photo: Courtesy of Committee Against Torture

Award-winning Russian investigative journalist Elena Milashina and civil rights lawyer Alexander Nemov were brutally attacked in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, earlier this month while on their way to the trial of a human rights activist.

Milashina, whose name also appears as Yelena Milashina in media reports, is most well-known for breaking the news in 2017 about Chechnya's gay purge in Russia's former independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. She is one of the country's leading reporters on Chechnya. The Bay Area Reporter previously reported on Chechnya's gay detention centers.

In 2022, Russia stripped Novaya Gazeta of its license six months after its editor, Dmitry Muratov, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for his paper's courageous reporting under difficult circumstances, reported the . Muratov shared the prize with fellow editor and lesbian Filipino and American journalist Maria Ressa, co-founder and CEO of Rappler.

Novaya Gazeta suspended operations in Russia after the country's invasion of Ukraine, but some of its reporters, like Milashina, have continued to work in exile, reported the New York Times. Six journalists with Novaya Gazeta were killed in its three decades of existence, reported the Times. One of the journalists was investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in 2006, reported CBS News.

The July 4 assault left Milashina and Nemov with stab wounds, broken fingers, and head wounds. This is the second time Milashina has survived an assault, as she was also attacked in 2020.

Photographs of Milashina at a Grozny hospital released with her permission by the Committee Against Torture, a human rights group, show the extent of the attack. The Times reported that Milashina suffered brain injuries, her fingers were broken, and she repeatedly lost consciousness. The attackers also doused her in liquid iodine in an apparent attempt to prevent her from appearing in public. Nemov was stabbed in the leg, according to Novaya Gazeta.

The Times reported on a video showing Milashina stumbling through a hospital in neighboring North Ossetia in pain and fainting, after being evacuated from Chechnya.

Reuters reported that Milashina and Nemov were expected to be flown to Moscow for further treatment.

The incident led to a rare rebuke from the Kremlin, which called it a "very serious attack that requires rather energetic measures." Several prominent officials, state TV pundits, and others also condemned the attack, the newspaper reported. In an unusual move, officials called for an investigation. Normally, attacks on journalists are ignored.

Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova told Russian reporters the incident "should be carefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice."

Chechen officials disavowed any responsibility for the attack.

Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, posted on Telegram, "We'll sort it out. I have instructed the competent services to make every effort to identify the attackers."

Milashina and Nemov were traveling from the airport to the courthouse to hear the expected verdict in the case of Zarema Musayeva. Nemov is representing Musayeva, who denied charges of fraud and assaulting a police officer. The Times reported Musayeva was kidnapped from her apartment in Nizhny Novgorod — a central Russian city 1,120 miles north of Chechnya — and taken to Chechnya in early 2022. Musayeva's detention is viewed as retribution for her family's political activism against Kadyrov. Her sons, Abubakar and Ibragim Yangulbayev, and husband, all opposition activists, have fled the country, reported Reuters.

Kadyrov previously publicly called Milashina a "terrorist accomplice" for her coverage of the Yangulbayev family, reported the Times. Mansur Soltayev, a Chechen human rights official who took Milashina's report at the Grozny hospital, called the attack "a provocation" against the Chechen authorities, reported Russian state media RIA Novosti.

Similar attacks in Chechnya, however, have gone unpunished for years.

In Milashina and Nemov's incident, three vehicles with assailants in masks blocked their car. Milashina described what happened to Reuters, which translated the conversation, calling it "a classic kidnapping."

"They pinned [our driver] down, threw him out of his car, got in, bent our heads down, tied my hands, knelt me down there, and put a gun to my head," Milashina recounted from the hospital. The Times reported they were forced to unlock their phones, and their documents and equipment were destroyed.

CNN reported Milashina told Novaya Gazeta the attackers "knew what they were doing."

"They beat us up two times," she said. "They were very specific, they knew what they wanted, knew what their limits were."

Sergey Babinets, the head of the Russian human rights organization Crew Against Torture, said in a statement to CNN that the attackers had mentioned Milashina's work and previous court reporting while beating the pair. "This is clearly not a gangster attack, this is a direct attack for their work," he said.

Memorial, a Russian banned group, detailed what happened in the car in a Telegram post. The group wrote Milashina and Nemov were "brutally kicked, including in the face, threatened with death, had a gun held to their heads, and had their equipment taken away and smashed."

They were then told: "You have been warned. Get out of here and don't write anything."

Chechen and Russian authorities have not named suspects, according to the Times.

Nemov still made it to the courthouse the same day of the attack. Musayeva was sentenced to five and a half years in a penal colony.

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy organization that tracks violence against journalists, tweeted it was "horrified by the savage attack" on Milashina and noted the number of former Novaya Gazeta reporters killed since Putin came into power.

Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, Marie Struthers, said: "Amnesty International condemns this cowardly assault in the strongest terms and calls on the Russian authorities to swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of those who seek truth and justice."

The United Nations Human Rights Council-appointed special rapporteurs described the brutal assault by a group of masked assailants as "another example of the blatant disregard for the safety of journalists and human rights defenders in the Russian Federation."

The U.N. urged Russia to fully investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Russia's Investigative Committee has launched an investigation into the attack, reported CNN.

U.N. experts said they "will be closely monitoring this case, which is another attempt to silence independent voices advocating for justice for the victims of human rights violations in Russia."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.