Russia Since Kamalov's Murder

5 June 2012

By John Crowfoot

In May 2012 105 deputies of the State Duma, drawn from all the main parties, supported a motion about the murder of Hadjimurad Kamalov drawn up by Boris Reznik of United Russia. It called on the Investigative Committee to display greater vigour in its pursuit of those behind the December 2011 assassination of the prominent Dagestani journalist and public figure.

Certain killings of journalists in the 1990s, above all that of Dima Kholodov in 1994, stirred considerable popular feeling. Occasionally this led to sustained efforts at investigation, even prosecution, by the authorities. Most such cases, however, have been in Moscow. The overdue but welcome response by Russia’s parliament to the new situation on the country's southern flank is something new. At long last the reaction at the national level to ongoing murders of journalists in the North Caucasus, above all Dagestan, has not been restricted to an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. It has been clear for some time that the region is special.

For over two years, since the suspicious fall which killed Olga Kotovskaya, no journalist has died anywhere else in Russia, apart from the North Caucasus, in a work-related killing. (A TV director, Kotovskaya had just completed a successful battle in the courts to regain control of the company she helped to create twenty years earlier.)

Within the North Caucasus, Dagestan is the place where the fate of the region and, perhaps, more besides, will be decided. On the scale of its southern neighbours Georgia and Azerbaijan Dagestan is far bigger than any of the fringe of small and predominantly Muslim republics on Russia’s southern flank. And it was here that a fateful attempt at invasion helped trigger the second Chechen war from 1999 to 2005. The small force led by Shamil Basayev and Khattab was repelled and, ultimately, neighbouring Chechnya was pacified by the Kadyrovs, father and son. In Dagestan, meanwhile, a deadly mixture of police brutality and corruption, Islamic extremism, and the frustrations of disaffected youth formed the backdrop to an ongoing series of assassinations for which no one has yet been held responsible.

Constantly highlighted by Hadjimurad Kamalov and “Chernovik”, the outspoken and hugely popular newspaper he created in 2003, was the role of the police, whether in response to real and perceived menaces or their own involvement in a variety of crimes. It is thought that the anonymous death threat naming almost two dozen journalists, lawyers and rights activists (Kamalov among them), which circulated in Makhachkala in mid-2009, originated from within the ranks of Dagestan’s law-enforcement agencies.


Early this year the head of the Dagestan Union of Journalists attended an international conference in London on “Defending Human Rights Defenders”, organised by the Haldane Society with support from Amnesty International. Here Natasha Schmidt of Index talks to Ali Kamalov about the media in the North Caucasus and the situation since his nephew Hadjimurad was gunned down on 15 December 2011 – a date observed each year by tradition as Remembrance Day for journalists killed in Russia.

Defending Human Rights Defenders conference, jointly organised by the Haldane Society, Amnesty International and European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights on 24 February 2012, was sold out. An audience of over 150 people heard lawyers, journalists and activists from seven different countries set out abuses meted out to human rights defenders in Belarus, Chechnya, Dagestan, Columbia, Turkey, Palestine and the Philippines.

[What follows is an extended version of the interview just published in the June issue of Index on Censorship]

Index. Dagestan, so I’m told, is the only part of Russia where journalist continue to be killed for their work. More than ten journalists have been murdered there since 2005. Is that right?

Kamalov. In Dagestan today they are not just attacking and killing journalists. They target lawyers as well, beating them up or murdering them. They’ve also been killing judges - what do you or your readers hear about Dagestan?

Index. I have the impression that the North Caucasus is more dangerous than countries to the south, like Georgia or Armenia.

Dagestan and the North Caucasus

Kamalov. Dagestan is the largest of the North Caucasian republics, with a population of three million. Its inhabitants belong to more than thirty different nationalities and ethnic groups [none of which is dominant; the largest the Avars make up 30% of the total, tr.]. There are newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts in the languages of 14 of those ethnicities, as well as the media in Russian, the lingua franca of the republic.

If Dagestan leaves the Russian Federation, as many extremists and radicals would like, that would be the end of Russia, in my view. People from the North Caucasus play a key role everywhere in trade and commerce. A personal example. My nephew Magdi-Magomed returned to Dagestan from Siberia to help run the newspaper after his brother was murdered. He’s been working in Tyumen for more than a decade, as a legal specialist. My fellow Caucasians are to be found not just in Moscow and Petersburg but also, like Magdi beyond the Urals in Siberia and the Russian Far East. If ever they all returned to the Caucasus many problems would arise in the areas they left.

Dagestan could flourish as an independent country - it has oil and access to the Caspian Sea – but we have long been part of Russia. As the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov (1927-1993) put it, “Dagestan did not voluntarily join Russia, today we would not secede of our own free will”.

INDEX. Is that a view expressed often in the media, that it’s better to remain a part of Russia? Do others object to the relationship and if they do are censorship or even violence used to prevent the expression of such dissenting views?

KAMALOV. Some radicals would like to see Sharia law in Dagestan but they are few in number. Others say Sharia law will be established after a while and then Dagestan will secede. They also are not very numerous. Like sugar in a cup of tea, the Caucasus has already been dissolved and dispersed within Russia.

INDEX. So what lies behind the constant violence against journalists?

KAMALOV. There are several divisions within society. Over the past twenty years a relatively small group of people have grown rich as the official structures within Dagestan have disintegrated, leaving many others impoverished and increasingly resentful. There is an on-going contest between different clans to divide up positions of power and authority. When Journalists write about these tensions and conflicts they find themselves caught between the varying factions.

A further division is religious. The country is 99% Muslim. Traditionalists say there should be intermediaries between God and the individual; their leaders have accumulated considerable power. Others want a direct and personal relation between God and the individual. State structures in Dagestan, particularly the law-enforcement agencies, have done their best to increase animosity between these tendencies. If people do not think like our rulers (and the religious leaders are close to the government) the police persecute these young people.

In this situation journalists in Dagestan today act as human rights defenders.

INDEX. So journalists do not just report on what is happening, they also actively intervene?

KAMALOV. They are opposed above all to lawlessness and disregard for the law. They act as the people’s lawyers, and my nephew set up Chernovik in 2003 to perform that role as a publication [the name, literally “draft” in Russian, derives from US publisher Philip Graham’s dictum “a newspaper is the first draft of history”. tr.]

Hadjimurad Kamalov

INDEX. Tell me more about the newspaper and your nephew Hadjimurad.

KAMALOV. Chernovik was a phenomenal success. Within 18 months of its creation it had become the most popular newspaper in Dagestan. It began campaigning, not against a particular individual or on a single issue, but against the shortcomings in the judicial system and the republic’s law enforcement agencies. This was my nephew’s achievement and the Russian political analyst Maxim Shevchenko described him as the “Martin Luther King of the Caucasus”.

INDEX. Russian journalist Julia Latynina has said that Hadjimurad’s death will severely restrict access to reliable information about the North Caucasus. What will be his legacy, and how is the newspaper coping without him?

KAMALOV. Hadjimurad was universally trusted. Prosecutors and judges feared him. Officials respected and feared him. All were reluctant to debate with him on television. The most intimidating of our Ministers of Internal Affairs and prosecutors would ask me to intercede and restrain Hadjimurad, and help them restore good relations with him.

The current president of the republic became friendly with him and suggested that Hadjimurad might become the minister for ideology in Dagestan or run a major region within the country. My nephew replied, I am not joining the administration. If I do so I will have to abandon the newspaper and I am not prepared to do that.

Hadjimurad demonstrated that one person can alter the way people think. Those who had not wanted to raise certain subjects in the press started to speak out when they saw what he was saying. (Since his death they have again begun to fall silent.) Hadjimurad would sign articles by others to shield them from reprisals.

INDEX. What were these taboo subjects?

KAMALOV. Corruption, the way people were disappearing without a trace, the lack of justice in the courts. Hadjimurad was always specific and to the point. He had a great many helpers, honest and decent people within the system who would act incognito, bringing him information.

INDEX What was Hadjimurad’s background?

KAMALOV. He excelled at school and the institute. His first trained as a water engineer. I’m no journalist, he used to say, I’m an engineer. Then he went back to college and studied law.

During the 1990s he was a college lecturer. I invited him and his two brother to join me at our newspaper, so they would know what it means to be a journalist. He then moved to the Novae delo newspaper. It’s a tabloid daily with universal appeal and, at that time, Dagestan’s favourite newspaper. Hadjimurad was deputy chief editor and ran it although he always remained in the background.

Next he set up the Free Word Institute, a law firm and his Institute for Social Analysis. Finally he created Chernovik, which derives its name (Rough Draft), from US publisher Philip Graham’s dictum, “a newspaper is the first draft of history”. At first the paper was run on enthusiasm but in time Hadjimurad’s law firm and consultancy provided the income to support the newspaper.

INDEX. And what is the situation at Chernovik today without Hadjimurad?

KAMALOV. The newspaper, now headed by Hadjimurad’s younger brother Biyakai, continues to appear. But we must consider the future. That, of course, will be mostly down to me. There are probably people in Dagestan who want to see the paper close. Others would like to cash in on its. For political reasons or to make money, that’s why people want to own papers. Currently Chernovik is the only newspaper in Dagestan that pays its way.

INDEX. How are the reporters coping? Do they practice self-censorship? Has the newspaper changed its editorial policy in some way?

KAMALOV. To be frank, the newspaper lacks its former thrust and self-confidence. The President of the Republic offered some funding. That means we are selling out and that society in Dagestan is not yet capable of defending the things it values.

INDEX. What about harassment of journalists? A few years back journalist and rights activist Fatima Tlisova reported that not only she was being followed around in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), but even her children were subject to surveillance. Do similar things go on in Dagestan?

KAMALOV. Of course, there are threats and harassment and this is particularly the case when someone begins to expose the misdeeds of our law-enforcement agencies. That explains why journalists have been murdered.

Chernovik defended anyone who was genuinely the victim of surveillance and harassment, whether they were rich or poor. Hadjimurad often used to say: I am accused of being a Wahhabi (a term treated as a synonym for extremist and bandit). Yes, I’m a Wahhabi, he would say, I admit it. Yes, I’m a bandit, I admit it. Yes, I’m an extremist. Here, put on the cuffs, take me to the jail and, if you can prove that I’m any of these things, punish me. You must not punish anyone, however, without an investigation and a trial. Hadjimurad used to interrupt his phone conversations and say, “Take good note of this, I’m saying this for your benefit” – addressing those whom he knew to be tapping his phone.

They came and searched Hadjimurad’s apartment, they searched my home. We were publicly denounced as extremists – they went to any length.

Who killed Kamalov?

INDEX. Are there signs his murder is being properly investigated?

KAMALOV. Before I flew to London they assured me that the investigation was making progress. I’m not convinced. After Hadji Abashilov, the director of State television, was murdered in March 2008 they carried out an investigation, arrested two lads and put them trial. The case collapsed and no verdict was reached.

Chernovik could always defend itself in court. One entire issue, for example, exposed staff at the State prosecution service as liars and cheats. It was quite specific in its allegations and challenged the prosecution service to go to court and disprove what the newspaper said. After Hadjimurad raised the standard in this way people began to feel more confident. The courts re-examined their own behaviour and a great many judges were dismissed. Ordinary people began feeling that the judicial system could reach fair verdicts.

INDEX. Who do you think killed Hadjimurad? What’s the general feeling?

KAMALOV. There are different stories. Some say that a high-profile case of this kind was needed in the run-up to this year’s Russian presidential elections. The security services wanted to unsettle people and set them against each other. The result, though, was an enormous demonstration at his funeral on a scale that Dagestan has not seen before.

Following the murder of a fellow journalist Hadjimurad addressed a big rally and called for the Minister of Internal Affairs to resign. The response was a circular within the Ministry, as we learnt by chance, saying that I was shielding and supporting extremists. The brains behind this group was Hadjimurad, the note said, and it listed 27 individuals who supposedly met at the Journalists’ Club in Makhachkala. Their purpose was to overthrow the existing system and form of government. Since then two on that list have been murdered, my deputy Malik Akhmedilov in 2008 at the Khakikat newspaper [the main Avar-language weekly], and Hadjimurad himself at the end of last year.

INDEX. You said that many people turned out for Hadjimurad’s funeral. Is it part of the culture and tradition in contemporary Dagestan for ordinary citizens to gather and protest? Do they feel free enough under present conditions to voice their opinions in that way?

KAMALOV. Following my nephew’s murder there were calls to hold protest rallies. We set up a public commission, which I myself headed, and I spoke out against such gatherings. It would have been easy to call 30 to 50,000 of our young people out on the streets in memory of Hadjimurad Kamalov and make it all too easy to provoke some incident and cause bloodshed. I was alarmed at the prospect. There certainly are such provocateurs.

INDEX. Are there journalists in jail, as in neighbouring Azerbaijan, on fabricated charges unrelated to their journalistic activities?

KAMALOV. Not one journalist in Dagestan has been convicted in a court and sent to prison. Their opponents instead use threats, beatings and murders. I myself was attacked, years earlier, on 16 May 1996, in the stairwell entrance to our apartment building by three men. They hit me over the head and stabbed me three times in the chest. Fortunately I did not lose consciousness otherwise I would have quickly bled to death.

Journalists are killed using guns, mortars, explosives under the car or in the stairwell entrance to a block of flats. Killings take place in the centre of the capital, Makhachkala, yet the perpetrators are not caught. This raises the suspicion that the killers have been supplied with special passes because they are linked to the security services, Special Forces, the judicial system and law enforcement. In many cases the murdered takes place in broad daylight with traffic police and other policemen standing nearby and yet the killers get away.

INDEX. How far are the new media helping people to become informed in Dagestan? What’s the internet like where you are? Is there a vibrant blogging community? Do people use mobile phones to spread information?

KAMALOV. It’s developing very strongly, especially among the young.

Protecting journalists

INDEX. When attention is drawn to the plight of a journalist, does the publicity help to protect them?

KAMALOV. It’s hard to say. Hadjimurad and I often discussed the likelihood that he might be killed. Others told me, You must protect and defend your nephew. He carried a gun for a while. There were times when he had bodyguards and travelled in an armour-plated vehicle He tried to avoid going to places that were very busy. He always said: If they’ve decided to kill me, they’ll succeed.

There are all kinds of way they could have organised his murder. Some ignorant young man may have accepted money to do the job but the decision was taken at a high level. Afterwards all the blame will be put the perpetrator but others are also responsible. My nephew stirred the hostility of many powerful people in Dagestan. Or, perhaps, as some have suggested, there was a need to create confusion and uncertainty in society.

INDEX Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

KAMALOV. Come to Dagestan and see things for yourself.

[Interpreted and translated by John Crowfoot. Also see the Deaths and Disappearances of Journalists in Russia database, the Partial Justice report and, for those who read Russian, “Trapped by Fear”, the moving and only recently published response by Hadjimurad Kamalov to the 2009 death threat.]