Sapiyat Magomedova

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.

When asked about everyday life in Dagestan, local human rights lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova answers straight:

”I would not call it life.”

By refering to an example of a power structure among monkeys in the wild she paints a figurative description of what is happening in Russia and Dagestan.

”For some species of monkeys, demonstrating an erect penis is seen as a gesture of aggression. If a male who adressed this gesture will not pose submission, he will immediately be attacked. In a herd there is a rigid hierarchy of who can show his penis.”

Sapiyat continues:

”At other times and in other situations, these zoologists’ observations would cause only a smile, but this is the best and deepest image of what is happening in Russia and Dagestan.”

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

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.

Tatiana Lokshina, North Caucasus expert at Human Rights Watch in Russia says the following about Sapiyat Magomedova’s deeds:

“Sapiyat Magomedova is a courageous lawyer. Very few lawyers in Dagestan dare to take on the cases she does because of the threat to their own safety.”

And Sapiyat Magomedova is well aware of the risks:

“To say that I am not afraid would be wrong. But it is a healthy sense of fear. Fright can either mobilize or paralyze. I dare to hope that it mobilizes my strength.”

She continues:

“And the risk, the risk is there of course. When defending the rights of my clients I have to listen to a lot of untruths about myself and endure direct threats from the ‘powers that be’. Sometimes they turn to violence, like recently, when I was beaten by the police. Luckily I was not added to the list of lawyers that have been killed in Dagestan.”

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.

Bio: Sapiyat Magomedova

Born: 11 February 1979 in the town Khasavyurt in Dagestan.
Family: She comes from a big family, with three brothers and three sisters.
Education: Sapiyat Magomedova holds a Degree in Law obtained from the State University of Dagestan.
Interests: Reading and basketball, which she has played for several years.
Other: The Swedish government’s Per Anger Laureate 2012.
(Sources: International Crisis Group, Human Rights Centre Memorial, Human Rights Watch)

Human rights at risk in Dagestan

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

Facts Russia

Capital: Moscow
Population: 142.8 million (UN, 2011)
Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN, 2011)
Religion: Christianity
President: Vladimir Putin (since 2012)

Source: BBC news

Facts Dagestan

Capital: Makhachkala
Population: 2.9 million (UN, 2010)
Religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 70 years (men), 77 years (women) (UN, 2009)
President: Magomedsalam Magomedov (since 1994)

Source: BBC news

Footnote: As a Russian republic, Dagestan has the highest level of independence a federation subject can have within the Russian Federation. But after Putin’s entry this level has diminished. Today the Presidents of the Republics are appointed by Moscow.

Categories: Uncategorized.
Tags: Impunity, Sapiyat Magomedova, and Violence against human rights defenders.
Campaigns: Human rights defenders in focus.
Regions: The North Caucasus.