Press freedom groups around the world have condemned the brutal attack on Russian journalist Elena Milashina, who was beaten by unknown assailants in the Chechen capital of Grozny on July 4. Milashina, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, was in town to report on Chechnya’s ongoing attacks on LGBTQ people when she was assaulted along with lawyer Alexander Nemov. The attackers broke her fingers, shaved her head and doused her in liquid iodine, which leaves long-lasting stains on a person’s skin. For more, we speak with human rights monitor Anna Dobrovolskaya, the former executive director of Memorial Human Rights Center before the rights group was shut down by the Russian government in late 2021. “It’s a very clear signal that next time it will be even more brutal than that,” Dobrovolskaya says of the attack.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going now from Kyiv to Moscow to look at how the prominent Russian journalist Elena Milashina has been diagnosed with a brain injury and multiple fractures after she was violently attacked July 4th, along with attorney Alexander Nemov, while on their way to the court sentencing of a human rights activist in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. Unknown assailants beat them, shaved off Elena’s hair, doused her in blue-green liquid iodine. Her fingers were reportedly broken because she resisted demands to unlock her phone. Elena Milashina reports for Novaya Gazeta, exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya. She described the harrowing attack from the hospital where she was being treated.
ELENA MILASHINA: [translated] It was like a classic kidnap, like the ones they used to do. It just hasn’t happened in a long time. They came, threw the taxi driver out of the car. They got in, put my head down and tied my hands. They put me on my knees and a pistol to my head.
AMY GOODMAN: Elena Milashina works for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the last independent media outlets in Russia, co-founded by the Nobel Peace laureate Dmitry Muratov, stripped of its media license last year.
For more, we go to Moscow to speak with Anna Dobrovolskaya. She served as the executive director of Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow before it was shut down by the Russian government last year.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, under very sad circumstances, as we report on the death of the Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina and now the savage attack on Elena Milashina in Chechnya. Can you talk about the circumstances, what you understand? We had her in our studio years ago talking about the gravity of the situation in Chechnya. Now it’s different, but she’s still been brutalized.
ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having me back.
Yes, Elena Milashina, as you said, is one of the bravest Russian journalists, who worked a lot covering the human rights violations in Chechnya. And she was indeed on her way to a court hearing in Grozny, but it was not a human rights activist. It was actually a mother of three human rights and oppositional activists, Yangulbayev brothers, who all of them are outside of Russia at the moment, but their mother was taken as a hostage. And on the day of attack against Elena and Alexander — Zarema Musayeva is her name — she was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for the falsified case of fraud. This is, unfortunately, one of the multiple cases when human rights activists are being abused and suppressed so they would either leave the region and leave the country or stop talking altogether. And this is done so her sons would return back to Russia. And if they do this, they immediately will be taken by Chechen authorities, and we can most surely say that they will be tortured to death or killed right away.
So, Elena Milashina from Novaya Gazeta, together with Alexander Nemov, who is a attorney from Committee Against Torture, attorney at law, they were on their way to be at the court hearing, and, as Elena described, they were very brutally attacked. It was not the first attack against Elena in Chechnya. The last time she was attacked, about two years ago, it was also in Grozny, also on her way to one of the human rights trial. And she is probably one of the few persons who always comes back. I cannot say I wish she comes back to Chechnya after what happened, because it’s a very clear signal that next time it will be even more brutal than that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anna, she was actually — I mean, in addition, of course, to having been attacked before, Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, openly threatened her in 2022, last year, calling her a terrorist and terrorist accomplice and demanding her arrest. So, could you talk about that? And therefore, given his open comments, public comments, about her, it was quite extraordinary that she went, because she must have known that she would once again be targeted.
ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: It’s quite — it’s both predictable and unpredictable when exactly you will be targeted if you go to Chechnya. There is a saying that whoever tells you that it is difficult to work in Chechnya, do not believe them, because it’s impossible to work there. And, of course, Elena knew this very well, but still she made this choice to go and to demonstrate that she is not afraid, that human rights lawyers are not afraid of going, that attorneys are not afraid to go there, though it is becoming more and more dangerous.
Yes, Kadyrov openly, publicly said this speech terrorizing her and blaming her as a terrorist and saying that there will be some consequences. And I think there was a criminal case opened because of this speech, but these cases never go anywhere.
And right now the criminal case was also opened because of this attack, because of attack on Elena and Alexander. And somehow, the reaction of, like, federal authorities is very, very unique. They are saying that this is absolutely impossible, this has to be investigated. But at the same time, Chechen authorities says that “None of that was recorded on the security cameras. We don’t know who those people were. We just basically know nothing about them. But we will keep looking.”
So, it’s like a very common response by the Chechen authorities, and actually almost all the other authorities in Russia. Whenever a human rights defender, a journalist and an independent lawyer is being attacked, it’s more or less always the same response. And we still don’t know who killed Natalya Estemirova, and we still have no clear picture on the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. So, unfortunately, it’s continuing to go this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Anna, wasn’t Elena also covering the situation for the LGBT community in Chechnya?
ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: It was the coverage, yes, of situation with LGBT community. But more important than that, it was she was covering the location and existence of the secret prisons in Chechnya. And it’s not solely targeting the LGBT community, mostly men, but it was targeting basically every — it’s not activists, but every person who would speak openly something against Kadyrov’s regime. Basically, no one could have been — could have still stayed in Chechnya if he or she wanted to say something against. But at some point, a particular wave of repression was targeted LGBT men, gay men. And unfortunately, yeah, there was a wave of that. We don’t know what is happening with that now, because the region is extremely closed. Memorial was evicted from Chechnya in 2018 after our colleague, Oyub, was also imprisoned under falsified case. And since that time, it’s only very random victims of human rights defenders. And unfortunately, they continue to be attacked there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And while you were head of Memorial Human Rights Center, as you said, you worked on documenting war crimes in Chechnya. If you could talk about the period you covered and also explain Kadyrov’s rise to power? His father had fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War, but then changed sides in the Second Chechen War. So, could you explain the position he now occupies, how he came to occupy that position, and his relationship to Putin?
ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Mm-hmm, yeah. Chechnya is a very particular part of Russia, with a — it’s a beautiful region with very tragic episodes of history. It was one of the strongest separatist movements after Russia became independent from the Soviet Union, and the people were bravely struggling to gain more independence or to gain, you know, more fair negotiations about their status with the federal authorities. Unfortunately, or fortunately, they didn’t succeed. Like, it didn’t happen. But then there was a Second Chechen War. And between those wars, and during them, as well, there were massive terrorist attacks in the region of the northern Caucasus and also in, like, you know, central cities of Russia. Some investigators say that those attacks have been performed by FSB actually to blame it on terrorists from northern Caucasus. But, unfortunately, right now we don’t have any evidence to say if it was one or the other.
And it was used — like, I think that Putin’s regime and Yeltsin’s regime, they negotiated some kind of deal with Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Ramzan, saying that “You will have complete power over this region. If you stop fighting for freedom, we will give you whatever you want. And then you can just — like, you will be the king of this land.” And that’s what has happened. And his father was killed by the terrorist attack in Grozny on the stadium many, many years ago. And then the authorities, like, came to Ramzan, who was quite young at the moment, and now he basically rules a very, very harsh dictatorship in the region.
And we always — Memorial always said that whatever is happening in Chechnya, it does not get any investigation or any proper response from the authorities, and thus this wave of impunity was growing first in Russia, and then, as we can see, it started also falling on Ukraine, on other countries. And unfortunately, it demonstrates to us again, once we ignore human rights violations that are happening inside the dictatorship like Russia, it will always, always, always end up in massive, horrible massacres outside its borders.
AMY GOODMAN: Anna Dobrovolskaya, we want to thank you so much for being with us, served as executive director of Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow before it was shut down by the Russian government last year.
Next up, we go to Syria, where the United Nations has established an independent body to investigate what happened to more than 130,000 people who have gone missing during the 12-year conflict. And we’ll look at a new BBC documentary, Captagon: Inside Syria’s drug trafficking empire. Then, Congressmember Ro Khanna joins us from South Carolina. Stay with us.