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Thousands demand release of Ingush activist Zarifa Sautiyeva

7 October 2019
People in Moscow holding posters saying ‘Freedom to Zarifa’ and ‘Freedom to political prisoners in Ingushetia’. Photo: RFE/RL North Caucasus Service.

An online protest is demanding the release of Zarifa Sautiyeva, an activist against Ingushetia’s controversial land deal with Chechnya. Thousands of people from all over Russia have uploaded videos calling for her release. 

Sautiyeva is the former deputy director of the Memorial of Memory and Glory, a large memorial and museum complex in Ingushetia’s largest city, Nazran, dedicated to the victims of political repression. She was arrested on 13 July on charges of organising the use of violence against government officials at a rally on 27 March in Magas, the republic’s capital.

The Memorial Human Rights Centre, a Moscow-based rights group, has recognised Sautiyeva as a political prisoner and called on the Russian authorities to release her immediately.

On 28 September, Moscow resident Boris Kodzoyev, posted a video on Facebook demanding Sautiyeva’s release and calling on others to make similar videos of their own.

In his video, Kodzoyev says he was inspired by recent protests in Kalmykia against the appointment of Dmitry Trapeznikov, a former head of the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, as the mayor of Elista, Kalmykia’s capital city.

‘We all saw the events in Kalmykia and how [the public] reacted’, Kodzoyev told OC Media. ‘And I thought, can we also take the same step and all of us speak out? 

Kodzoyev’s request quickly went viral and within a couple of days, there were over a thousand videos calling for the release of Sautiyeva on Instagram alone. Celebrities also joined in the online protest, with Olympic judo champion Khasan Khalmurzayev, world kickboxing champion Fatima Bokova, Russian writer and playwright Farid Nagim, and Russian journalist and photographer Vladimir Sevrinovsky all uploading videos.

Kodzoyev said that the scope of the reaction to his video surprised him, as he expected that only a few of the most active public figures would take part in it.

The online protest was also supported by the Council of Teips (clans) of Ingushetia. 

‘We join the [protest] for the release of Zarifa Sautiyeva, as well as all political prisoners’, they said in their statement. ‘We demand the release of these people. They have done no harm.’  

Nikolay Rybakov, a vice-chair of Russian liberal opposition party Yabloko stated in his video that the protests in Ingushetia were peaceful and that ‘mass repressions unfolded against those who dared to take a civic stand’. He called for the release of Sautiyeva and all other political prisoners. 

On 24 September, Sautiyeva’s sisters staged a single-person picket in Ingushetia. One stood outside the administration of the Head of Ingushetia holding a poster reading ‘Freedom to Zarifa Sautiyeva’ while the other recorded it with a phone. 

Zarifa Sautiyeva’s lawyer, Bilan Dzugayev, wrote on Facebook that the two women held the picket for less than an hour before people dressed in civilian clothing detained them and brought them to a nearby police station. They were released two hours later without charges. 

‘Ingush Bolotnaya case’

‘More than thirty people are imprisoned under the auspices of ‘Ingush Bolotnaya case’, Abdul-Khamid Yevloyev, a member of the Ingush National Unity Committee told OC Media.

The ‘Ingush Bolotnaya case’ was a criminal proceeding launched against the participants of a rally on 27 March in Magas. The protestors’ main demand was the resignation of then–head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the cancellation of the border agreement with Chechnya signed on 26 September 2018.

[Read on OC Media: Ingushetia’s head to step down after eight months of turmoil]

Under the widely unpopular deal signed by Yevkurov and his Chechen counterpart Ramzan Kadyrov, Ingushetia handed around 340 square kilometres (9% of its territory) to Chechnya.

In October, MPs from Ingushetia’s regional parliament, the People’s Assembly, approved the deal 17-4 in a secret ballot. Following the vote, a number of MPs claimed it had been falsified, insisting they had voted against the deal.

‘The agreement was concluded without a referendum [and kept secret] from the people’, Yevloyev said. ‘Which provoked popular outrage, and on 4 October, on the day the MPs ratified the agreement, a huge number of people went to a rally in Magas. This has never happened before in Ingushetia’. 

The Supreme Court of Ingushetia ruled at the end of October that the border deal violated Ingushetia’s constitution, as a referendum was required in order to adopt it.

However, Russia’s Supreme Court overruled the court in December, in proceedings boycotted by the head of the Ingush constitutional court, Ayup Gagiyev, who insisted that the federal court had no jurisdiction over its decisions.

Protests re-erupted in late March after the Ingush authorities attempted to change the Law on Referenda on which the Supreme Court’s ruling rested.

The authorities responded by banning further protests, firing the republic’s interior minister, and disbanding a local police unit, after reports they sided with protesters against units of the Russian National Guard.

[Read more about March protests: Turmoil in Ingushetia as protests re-erupt and interior minister ‘sacked’]

‘Up to 10 years in prison’

Sautiyeva was the first female participant of the protests to be arrested and transported to a detention centre in neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria.

Sautiyeva’s lawyer told OC Media that in a recording of the protest presented by the investigation as evidence against her, Sautiyeva is heard asking people not to throw chairs as protestors clashed with police, but the translation of her words into Russian is incorrect. In addition, according to her lawyer, much of the case against Sautiyeva is built upon testimony from a confidential witness who testified that she supported attacks on the police.

‘Zarifa faces up to 10 years in prison’, he said. ‘She was detained until 12 July, and was further detained by a court decision until 11 December, although there is no reason for this’.

He also said that the defence was prepared to make a bail payment of up to ₽500,000 ($7,700) and had asked the court to consider alternative measures to pre-trial detention, such as house arrest, but that on 9 September, the court extended Sautiyeva’s detention for 3 months.

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