After a Chechen woman died, a journalist was targeted with death threats. Here’s why
Cases of domestic violence and murder of women in Russia’s North Caucasus often go unpunished.
On 22 July, an unknown man called Svetlana Anokhina, a journalist in Dagestan, several times and threatened to kill her. After confirming he was speaking to Anokhina, the caller told her he had been “given orders to deal with feminists”. This was an apparent reference to Anokhina’s position as chief editor of Daptar.ru, an independent website which has covered women’s issues in the North Caucasus for the past six years.
Anokhina, speaking to the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the timing of the call suggested the threats may have been in response to an article she had published on a controversial case - the recent death of a Chechen woman, Madina Umayeva, who was allegedly murdered by her husband.
The article by journalist Lidia Mikhalchenko, published on Daptar.ru the day before the anonymous call, claimed that Chechen and federal level authorities had failed to investigate the alleged murder of Umayeva. When Anokhina mentioned contacting the Makhachkala district police station regarding the threats, the unknown caller claimed his relative was the “boss” there.
In early July, Novaya Gazeta reported that Umayeva’s husband had previously worked at a special forces training centre in the Chechen village of Tsentoroy, the home village of the republic’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The centre is run by a cousin of Kadyrov.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Here is the story that was published by Daptar the day before Anokhina received death threats. It is translated with permission.
Stabbed, strangled, beaten to death
The story of Madina, a young woman from Gudermes in Chechnya who died a few weeks ago, spread widely thanks to media coverage. The young woman may have been a victim of domestic violence, as her mother initially stated. But the Chechen authorities forced Madina’s mother to apologise for what she had said and presented the dead woman’s husband with a new house.
Women in Russia’s North Caucasus are killed, raped, imprisoned at home, stabbed and beaten by their husbands. In practice, victims have almost no hope of obtaining justice in Russia. As it stands, neither the laws of the Russian Federation, local customs nor Islam can protect them.
Unwanted by her parents, beaten by her husband
Russian and European human rights organisations have appealed to Russia’s Investigative Committee over the case of Madina Umayeva, requesting that the agency’s head Alexander Bastrykin transfer the investigation to the committee and keep it under his personal oversight.
Many outlets have already narrated Madina’s short life, examining it in detail. It is not a very happy one. Madina was raised by her step-mother. Her parents separated and the child, as often happens in Vainakh (Chechen and Ingush) families, remained with her father. When her father learned that Madina was seeing her mother in secret, he took it as a personal offence and showed her the door. She was 14 at the time. At 16, Madina married. Much as her life up to this point, the marriage was not a happy one. Madina regularly ran away from home and turned up at her mother, who lives in the town of Argun. She would appear with marks on her face and body showing that she had been beaten. But under pressure from both her parents, she would go back to her husband. She lived like this for seven years, gave birth to three children, and on 12 June 2020, she died in Gudermes, in the house she shared with her husband and her children. She was 23.
As cynical as it sounds, up to this point, the story seems quite ordinary. A young woman who no one needs, who is regularly beaten and has nowhere to go, dies after yet another quarrel with her husband and her mother-in-law, presumably after having been beaten. But what sets Madina Umayeva’s story apart from other horrible stories of Russian women beaten to death by their husbands is the intervention of the Chechen authorities.
According to Madina’s mother, Hutmat Dovletmirzayeva, before Madina died, she had an argument with her husband Viskhadzhi Khamidov, and her mother-in-law. Dovletmirzayeva says they accused her daughter of embezzling a child benefit payment, a single payment made as a result of the pandemic. Madina used part of the money to buy a TV, and her mother-in-law and husband believed she didn’t have the right to do so.
On the afternoon of 12 June, screams and noises of a violent argument were heard coming from the Khamidov house. According to Dovletmirzayeva, two neighbours saw Madina lying on the ground by the gate and came over to help. They were stopped by Gumset Khadimova, Madina’s mother-in-law, who said that the young woman often put on a similar act. She escorted the women away.
At 5:30pm on the same day, the Khamidov house called an ambulance. At about 6:10-6:15pm, a doctor pronounced the young woman dead and called the police. An imam was called around the same time. At 9pm, Madina’s parents were informed of the death of their daughter. Her mother barely had any time to pay her respects. Her dad wasn’t able to make it to the funeral. Madina was buried at midnight, which is very unusual in Chechnya.
News about this strange night funeral started to appear almost immediately on Chechen social networks and WhatsApp groups. A video started circulating with a caption saying: “this husband beat his wife to death”. Madina’s husband and her mother-in-law claimed that she had died as a result of an epileptic seizure. But her mother insisted: Madina did not suffer from epilepsy, asthma, or allergies. “I am sure my daughter was killed,” Dovletmirzayeva told a journalist with the Chechen state TV channel on 21 June.
The Investigative Committee began an investigation. They ordered an exhumation and an autopsy. But even before this, the Chechen State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company Grozny channel ran a story defending Khamidov. The TV segment started with the following words: “For him a personal tragedy has led to condemnation of those who believed links shared on the Internet”.
On 23 June, the head of the Chechen republic Ramzan Kadyrov intervened in the case. He gathered everyone involved at Gudermes city hall, listened to the relatives of Umayeva and Khamidov and then personally announced the results of the (so far preliminary) autopsy: no sign of violence had been found.
Kadyrov then told Madina’s mother: “You gave up your daughter’s corpse to be torn apart all around Russia, the head here, the spine there. All your conversations with the neighbours and everything that happened to your daughter after her death, all this gossip has spread further. You will have to answer for all of this, the sin is yours to bear. Isn’t there a single man in your family? People are already talking: the girl’s organs have been sent for examination, is her mother crazy or what, how did she allow this? In Europe, they are also wagging their tongues to say that in Chechnya there are no courts of justice, that women are being bullied. According to Chechen traditions, a woman who married and gave birth to children must know her place. You can scold her, you can beat her, after all a mother beats her children”.
After this admonition, Dovletmirzayeva apologised to Kadyrov for having shared her speculations on the murder of her daughter. The apology was broadcast live on Grozny TV channel. She then apologised to her son-in-law and his parents. Following Madina’s mother, her father and her uncle spoke, saying they had no complaints against anyone. The uncle even asked for the investigation to be stopped.
But Chechen TV continued to “exonerate” Khamidov by any possible means. They provided a certificate by a psychiatrist about Khamidova’s disability, and information (without corroboration or testimony) that when the neighbours heard screams in the house and when Madina lay unconscious at the gate, her husband was at the hospital, undergoing examination.
Apparently, this was not enough, and so a key justification was made public. The attack was directed at Madina herself, or more precisely, at the reputation of a young woman who no one defended when she was alive, and for whom no one would intercede after her death. It was the usual accusation: “She was sleeping around! She was an unfaithful wife!” This claim was allegedly based on an audio message Madina’s mother had sent to a relative. One can only guess when and under which circumstances it was recorded. Chechens were made to understand: don’t dare getting involved in this, don’t dare to show sympathy and demand an investigation. The idea was that even if Madina was killed, whoever killed her had the right to do so.
The Grozny TV channel is entirely subordinated to the head of the republic. It is likely that the video hinting at Madina’s infidelity was made with the highest approval. The actions of the authorities have cast a doubt on the result of the investigation, whatever they might be in the end.
All the more so, given that Madina’s widower received a valuable gift from the Chechen authorities. A news bulletin broadcast on Grozny channel on 18 June showed a report on the family settling in a spacious new house, already furnished, which had been purchased via a foundation bearing the name of Kadyrov’s late father. The results of the autopsy on Madina’s exhumed body are not yet known.
An axe to the head
This case is not the only one of its kind. Lawyers who work in the North Caucasus and deal with cases of domestic violence and women’s murders see hundreds of similar stories. Here are a few.
Last April, the UN’s Commitee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), examined the case of Shema Timagova from Chechnya and found that Russia had violated the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
In 2009, Timagova’s husband beat her with a shovel until she lost consciousness. He was sentenced to a small fine (15 000 roubles). In 2010, after their divorce, he attacked Timagova with an axe and struck strong blows, almost splitting her skull. Timagova survived but was left permanently disabled.
At the trial, the defense claimed that Timagova “insulted her ex-husband and provoked him into attacking”, and that he “acted in a state of passion in connection to the ‘amoral’ behaviour of the victim”.
A court in Achkoy-Martan sentenced the defendant to nine months’ imprisonment, and, taking in account the time he had already spent in detention, immediately released him in the courthouse. Timagova had to leave not only her home (after the divorce, a local court had granted her and her children half of the house), but the village where she lived.
Killed the younger sister, kidnapped the older
The European Court of Human Rights is currently considering two complaints from a native of Ingushetia, Elizaveta Aliyeva. The first concerns the lack of an effective investigation into the armed abduction she experienced in July 2015, the second concerns the murder of her younger sister Marem Aliyeva.
In 1994, Mukharbek Yevloyev kidnapped 16-year old schoolgirl Marem and forced her to marry him. The “groom” wasn’t embarrassed by the fact that he had two wives and six children, nor by an age difference of almost 30 years.
Marem tried to leave her husband several times but he made her return home. Once, as a punishment, he cut the distal phalanx of one of the fingers of her left hand, another time he shaved half of her head and threatened to throw acid on her face.
Marem fled with her children on 8 July 2015. On 9 July, two men wearing camouflage fatigues and Yevloyev himself broke into her sister’s house. The men dragged Elizaveta Aliyeva by her hair throughout the house and demanded she tell them where her sister was. They then put her in a car where Aliyeva’s husband was already sitting, and drove outside toward the outskirts of Sunzha, towards the dump. The neighbours called the police and a chase after the kidnappers’ car started. Aliyeva managed to escape and her husband was pushed out of the car after her. The couple wrote a complaint about the abduction.
After some time, believing her husband, who swore on the Koran that he would never lift a hand against her again, Marem returned to him. On 20 September she called her sister. She said that at night her husband had stood by her bed and promised to kill her, and that men were currently gathering in the yard. “If I’m not answering my phone in half an hour, please save me Lisa,” she said.
No one ever heard of Marem again. Her children said they had found a bloodied rope with a noose when they returned from school. Aliyeva, who managed to get into the house before it was cleaned up, says that she saw her sister's hair dryer covered in blood and a tuft of her hair on the floor.
Following the disappearance of Marem Aliyeva, a murder case was started. Nothing is known about the investigation. It might just have gotten lost.
The same happened with the death of Kheda, Yevloyev’s daughter from his first wife. In 2013 the young woman’s body was found in a house. She had been killed by a gunshot. A gun was found in her left hand, although Kheda had been right-handed. According to Aliyeva, Marem had told her that Yevloyev beat his daughter, mocked her and that she complained that her “father came to see her at night and touched her”. Kheda was buried two hours after her body was found. There was no investigation into her death.
Yevloyev was sentenced to six years of prison and a fine of 80,000 roubles for kidnapping two persons with a firearm. But six months later he was already free. And later, the presidium of Ingushetia’s Supreme Court cancelled the verdict against him, because they considered Aliyeva and her husband had been released by their captors voluntarily, which freed them from responsibility.
Aliyeva’s husband divorced her, changed his testimony, and according to her, was given a job by Yevloyev. Aliyeva left the country, where neither “fair Russian laws”, “strong Ingush traditions”, nor religious authorities had defended her and her sister.
She didn’t run away but was killed all the same
Another case to be examined by the European Court of Human Rights is that of Toita, also from Chechnya.
Aida, the mother of a young woman named Toita (the name has been changed), alerted the authorities to the disappearance of her daughter. In October 2016, Toita was visiting a friend, when, according to her host, Toita’s ex-husband, a police officer, called and said that he had arrived and was waiting for her at her house with his older brother. Toita said goodbye to her friend and left worried. On the previous day she had told her friend that she was afraid of her brother-in-law. From that moment, no one saw Toita, dead or alive. Her ex-husband said she ran away.
Toita’s family are sure she was killed. Her mother says that her husband beat her with a gun handle, stabbed her with a knife, threatened to kill her and her brothers, forbade her to communicate with her relatives, kept her and her young sons in a cell in a basement for weeks, depriving them of food or water. Toita went to the police, underwent a medical examination. Traces of beatings and knife wounds were recorded. An investigation by the regional department of Grozny’s Ministry of Internal Affairs did not produce any result.
Aida prepared a statement about the disappearance of her daughter. She appealed to the prosecutor's office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, to no avail. The police questioned Toita’s family and her friends and this was all. They didn’t investigate the involvement of the ex-husband and his brother in the disappearance of the young woman.
This case is to be examined by the European Court of Human Rights. The Legal Initiative organisation is representing the interests of the applicant.
Crime and “punishment”
In February 2019, Tagir Velagayev, a policeman from Dagestan, strangled his wife Umuzhat, with whom he had lived for 17 years, wrapped her body in a rug and left it in the apartment. Twelve days later neighbours and the police found the body. A day later Velagayev confessed to the crime in writing.
The court was convinced by the defendant’s lawyer, who claimed his client had killed his wife in a state of passion after “a serious insult from the victim”. The killer was sentenced to restriction of freedom. That is to say, he keeps living as before, but must regularly report to the police, cannot travel outside the republic, nor attend mass gatherings.
In September 2019, Vladikavkaz resident Vadim Tekhov stabbed his ex-wife Regina Gagieva to death after showing up at her work. He faces up to 20 years in prison. At the time of the murder, Tekhov was supposed to be “under house arrest”. He left his house to kill his ex-wife carrying an ankle monitor. Before that, he had beaten Gagiyeva, threatened her with a knife. She repeatedly complained to the police about domestic violence but law enforcement officers did not react. The justice system only reluctantly got into gear a year before the tragedy, and… Tekhov was fined 5,000 roubles.
He broke in, broke her nose and her jaw, put a knife to her cheek and said he would kill her slowly
Last September, Gullya Kazanbiyeva was taken to Makhachkala hospital. She had a broken upper jaw, a closed-head injury, a concussion, fractured bones in her forearms, numerous bruises on her face and her body.
An investigation established that her ex-husband Abdurakhman Kurbanov had caused the injuries. Kazanbiyeva claimed she had been abused for five years. On that day, she recalled, Kurbanov broke in, broke her nose and her jaw, put a knife to her cheek and said that he would kill her slowly. She managed to escape from the house - helped by the fact her neighbours were home. Her ex-husband left. She woke up in intensive care. A criminal case was opened only a month and a half after the assault.
Kurbanov has been charged under the article “intentional infliction of injury of average gravity to someone’s health”. Despite all the evidence, despite Kazanbiyeva’s account of how he pushed her into a ravine and threw some stones at her, how he tried to set fire to her family’s house, the Investigative Committee refuse to see an attempted murder in this case and to acknowledge that Kazanbiyeva’s ex-husband is a threat to her and her family’s life and safety. The offender is likely to get off with three years in prison. He is currently not even in prison, but under house arrest and continues to threaten the victim.
Get our weekly email