Human rights defender of the month: Sapiyat Magomedova from Dagestan

November 6, 2012

The North Caucasian republic of Dagestan is one of the most dangerous places for lawyers today in Russia. In this region Sapiyat Magomedova defends victims of grave human rights violations like enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings and torture. She has taken on cases that many lawyers would reject due to security reasons, and although it is considered almost impossible, she has won several of them. She was chosen by Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders as its HRD of the month. Last week I reported that she had received an important award from Sweden.

When asked about everyday life in Dagestan, local human rights lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova answers straight: ”I would not call it life.” The conflict in Dagestan is bridging on civil war. During the last two years Dagestan is considered to be the most violent region in the North Caucasus, followed by Chechnya. Local human rights defenders constantly face harassment, assaults and threats to their life.

Portrait Sapiyat Magomedova Photo: Private

In 2010 Sapiyat Magomedova was severely beaten by police officers when visiting one of her clients. When pressing charges, she was herself charged with using violence against state officials and insulting police officers on duty. Sapiyat Magomedova had already in 2009 been subjected to an unfounded criminal case for allegedly offending an Investigator from the Prosecutor’s Office. She believes that the case was a form of retaliation for her standing up to law enforcement agencies and fighting impunity. “The criminal case against me was opened to put pressure on me, to force me to retract my statement against the police officers”, Sapiyat Magomedova later said in an interview.

Sapiyat Magomedova represents victims in very sensitive cases, such as allegations that the police have tortured individuals suspected of involvement with the insurgency, and cases of sexual- and gender based violence. Normally, cases of sexual- and gender based violence go unreported in Dagestan. Sexual violence is a taboo subject in a region where honour killings, bride kidnapping, and child marriage occur. There is an absence of debate on the political level on these issues. Women’s rights are not high on the political agenda and gender based violence and other kind of abuses against women occur on a regular basis.

In 2011, Sapiyat Magomedova defended a 13-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and raped for three days by five young men. Two of the suspected rapists were sons of police officers. After strong pressure on the girl and her family, she succumbed and changed her statement. The case, however, got rather great resonance in society and might lead to inspiring other victims to dare press charges. Sapiyat Magomedova further highlighted the case on one of the first conferences on women’s rights in the region. At the conference she spoke about the problem with impunity in cases of sexual- and gender based violence.

Being a woman, Sapiyat Magomedova must also exert much effort just to be taken seriously in her legal profession. Caucasian women are commonly housewives and that “leaves its mark”, as Sapiyat Magomedova puts it. Woman lawyers have a lot of misconceptions to fight against.

Human rights defenders constantly face harassment and threats to their life in Dagestan. Since 2010, Dagestan is considered to be the most violent region in the North Caucasus, followed by Chechnya. The conflict nearly approach the level of civil war. Russian law enforcement bodies are reluctant to investigate cases of human rights abuses. Even though Russia has been convicted approximately 210 times for violations linked to North Caucasus, by the European Court of Human Rights, not even one perpetrator has been put to justice.

In many cases, violations are committed by those who are supposed to uphold the rule of law, under the pretext of fighting terrorism. In order to keep up statistics in terror crimes, it frequently occurs that law enforcement bodies fabricate evidence against innocent people and extract a confession by using torture. This in turn nurtures the insurgency that has been on the rise in the past years. A decade of failure to stabilize the region and deal with the rampant impunity has created an environment where ordinary people live in fear and have almost nowhere to turn to seek justice.

The Russian government invests enormous sums of money each year to dampen the conflicts throughout the North Caucasus. The number of dead terrorists is used as evidence that the Russian government’s initiative leads to results. Military and security forces, and the Police are being rewarded for each person that can be added to the toll of terrorists. This has led to civilians being accused of joining the separatists. Kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions are common.

Read more in Civil Rights Defenders country report: Human rights in Russia

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