Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is allegedly waging a campaign of terror to force out the only human rights group operating in the semi-independent Russian territory.
Memorial, which has been documenting human rights abuses in Russia for close to three decades, reports that one of its drivers’ cars was torched on Monday evening in the city of Makhachkala, a three-hour drive from Chechnya. The organization claimed in a press release that the owner of the vehicle was notified of the arson attack by a neighbor, who helped stamp out the blaze.
The person responsible for the attack left behind a canister of gasoline, which was found near the car.
Human Rights Watch reports the advocacy group was sent several threatening text messages warning of further retaliation if Memorial continues its work to highlight Kadyrov’s ongoing purge of LGBTQ life in Chechnya.
“You’re walking on the edge of the abyss,” claimed an anonymous number. “Shut down! Next time we’ll burn your office, with you inside. The car is just a warning.”
This is only the latest attack on Memorial in recent weeks.
The organization’s offices in Ingushetia, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya, were torched by a group of masked assailants on Jan. 17, just days after one of its members was arrested by police. Oyub Titiev, who leads Memorial’s Chechen office, was accused of being in possession of six ounces of cannabis.
Memorial has denied the charges, which could result in a steep penalty if Titiev is convicted. He reportedly faces a potential sentence of 10 years behind bars.
Human rights advocates believe the onslaught is a response to the shutdown of Kadyrov’s Instagram account, which was abruptly deactivated on Dec. 23. The social media platform pulled the plug on his profile following sanctions by the U.S. government under the Magnitsky Act. The 2012 law allows federal authorities to freeze the financial assets of foreign despots accused of violating human rights.
More than 100 gay and bisexual men have been arrested in Chechnya in a purge of the LGBTQ community, and at least four have been killed. Kadyrov reportedly vowed to exterminate the region’s queer and transgender population before last year’s observance of Ramadan.
Memorial Founder Oleg Orlov has claimed that losing his Instagram account as a result of the brutal campaign is “a matter of Kadyrov’s image, of his prestige.”
“When he feels offended, nothing else is important to himwhoever gets in his way must be destroyed,” Orlov told The Guardian on Jan. 21. “We were held responsible for this by Kadyrov and his inner circle because we are one of the very few sources of information about rights abuses in Chechnya.”
Katya Sokirianskaia agreed that the arson attacks were an act of “revenge.”
“Being placed on the U.S. sanctions list didn’t really bother Kadyrov, but the loss of Instagram was very painful for him,” Sokirianskaia told the U.K.-based publication. “Kadyrov loved his Instagram. It was a very powerful propaganda tool for him, not just his favorite toy.”
Kadyrov boasted more than 3 million followers on his channel, where he posted videos of himself working out and wrestling crocodiles.
Chechen leaders have pointed the finger directly at local human rights groups blaming them for the Instagram shutdown. Parliament Speaker Magomed Daudov called advocates “enemies of the people” and accused them of “pouring rivers of lies” about the anti-LGBTQ crackdown to their “bosses across the ocean.”
Kadyrov added that advocacy organizations have “no clan, no nation, no religion” and threatened further violence against anyone working to further human rights in Chechnya.
“I will tell you how we are going to break the spine of our enemies,” he claimed.