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Supporters of Moscow-backed autocrat pelt human rights activists with eggs

A Human Rights Watch press conference in Moscow was attacked by supporters of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov yesterday.

The panel was delivering a statement criticizing Kadyrov's policy of punishing the families of Chechen insurgents for their children's actions. The two Kadyrov supporters stood and began to shout questions as human rights activist Igor Kalyapin was speaking, then began to pelt him and the rest of the panel with eggs:

Human Rights Watch Researcher Tanya Lokshina, who was emceeing the conference, described the events in a statement on the organization's website:

"While Igor was speaking, one man got up and demanded to ask a question. I said he had to wait until the end of the speakers’ statements. He insisted. I asked him to sit down. He started shouting and moving toward the speakers’ table. The two men behind him also jumped up, yelling some incoherent accusations and rushed toward us.

For a second, I thought they’d spray us with pepper gas or something worse, so when they started throwing eggs I felt almost relieved. They aimed at Kalyapin, and as they were literally two steps away from him, they easily hit their target. Kalyapin’s suit was ruined and his hair was a gooey mess. Another colleague and I also got splattered, and a particularly fat blob of raw egg landed on top of my last copy of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report about punitive house burnings in Chechnya.

Kadyrov's use of collective punishment

Chechnya has been plagued by repeated outbreaks of separatist conflict since the mid-90s. The region unilaterally declared independence in 1994, but then-President Boris Yeltsin responded by invading to keep Chechnya as part of Russia. Two wars followed, as well as a terrorist insurgency that took on jihadist overtones, and carried out major attacks on civilians.

In 2007, Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as President of Chechnya. Kadyrov managed to largely quell the Chechen insurgency, but did so in part through the use of torture, forced disappearances, murders, and other serious human rights abuses. However, there was a major rebel attack on the Chechen capital last week, the first one in several years.

In response, Kadyrov pledged on Instagram that "If a rebel kills a policeman or another person, his family will be immediately expelled from Chechnya with no right to return, and their house will be razed to the ground."

That would be a continuation of a previous policy of collective punishment for the families of Chechen insurgents. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented at least 13 instances of family homes being burned in retaliation for insurgent activity.

Threats to human rights defenders in Russia

Russia has been a hostile environment for human rights activists for years, so the egg attack is far from the worst threat that Kalyapin or Lokshina has faced. In 2012, Lokshina received a series of anonymous threats against both herself and her unborn child. Kalyapin, who is the head of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian human rights organizations, has been threatened with prosecution on multiple occasions in retaliation for his work, including by Chechen authorities.

Perhaps that explains why the panelists were so impressively cool about yesterday's attack: Kalyapin simply told his attackers "you've lost your eggs," took off his coat, and carried on speaking. The two assailants fled the premises.

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