Personal tragedy led her to activism
Five years have passed since Svetlana Isayeva’s, at that time, 25-year old son was taken by security forces and ”disappeared”. In Dagestan, where the war against terrorism affects an increasing number of civilians, Svetlana, together with at group of others who have also lost someone dear, founded Mothers of Dagestan for human rights; an organisation that is on the victim’s side in the armed conflict between the Russian government forces and the separatists.
In present Dagestan a fierce hunt is ongoing. Svetlana Isayeva’s son was accused of having connections to the rebels. Then he disappeared. On April 26 2007 he was taken by security forces and five years down the road Svetlana have not heard a word about has happened to him:
“But the hope that he is alive is what keeps me going”, Svetlana said with tears in her eyes in an interview with Amnesty Press last year.
Her tragedy is not uncommon in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Human rights organisations all over the North Caucasus region have found that law enforcement and security agencies commit grave human rights violations, such as torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
In November 2011 BBC News described Dagestan as “the most explosive place in Russia – and in Europe” with almost daily bomb attacks and shootouts between police and militants. In Svetlana’s own words the situation in the region is like ”a civil war without a declaration of war”.
Svetlana is one of the founders of the human rights organisation Mothers of Dagestan that supports relatives to victims in the conflict.
“I want to help others who are in the same situation as me”, Svetlana explained.
Primarily the organisation helps women by offering legal advice. Many are unaware of their rights and they do not know where they can turn for help. During the years 2009-2010 the organisation handled 144 cases of severe human rights violations like disappearances, extrajudicial executions, fabricated criminal charges and kidnappings.
Mothers of Dagestan help with investigations of disappeared people. But the risks are great. Three years ago their office burnt down. Svetlana believes it to be an intentional attack, according to interview with Frontline Defenders. Just a few days before, the organisation had sent a complaint to the Public Prosecutor concerning an arson attack on a Muslim shop in Makhachkala. The office fire was a hard blow. A lot of gathered information, evidence and technical equipment were destroyed.
“I have been through almost everything. I have been followed by cars with tinted windows, our office is under constant surveillance, arrests, been threatened by law enforcement authorities. This is all psychologically stressful. Lately, unknown people have started coming to my apartment while I am out. Using various pretexts, they try to find out how many men who live there.”
The fire did not, however, defeat the organisation. Instantly their fight continues. Svetlana gathers the strength to carry on from her own personal tragedy:
”If I knew then what I know today, my rights, the necessary people, I could have saved him. I could have found out where he was. I could have done something,” she said in an interview with the Western Defence Studies Institute.
Well aware of the fact that everyone does not view her human rights work with a keen eye she says:
“I fear what can happen to my children and grandchildren. Several times I have received threats that I can lose them.”
Bio: Svetlana Isayeva
Born in 1957 in the village of Vasilkovka, Dnepropetrovsk oblast [in present day Ukraine], her family were forced to move to Dagestan, her father’s native country, while Svetlana was still a little girl. Her original profession is accountant and she has been doing radio sports and skydiving.
Svetlana has three children, one daughter and two sons (the oldest one being counted as missing), and five grandchildren.
Human rights at risk in Dagestan
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. The situation in Dagestan has worsened in recent years and is increasingly characterised by lawlessness and corruption.
During the North Caucasus conference that we held for the third time in the autumn 2011, the subject of why so many people choose to join the rebels, or as it is called “head to the forest”, was discussed. One explanation is the weak economic state that Dagestan is in – people cannot support themselves in a lawful manner. Other reasons mentioned were: to save one’s own life, unable to protect one’s family, avenging a relative’s death or religious beliefs. Svetlana Isayeva is convinced that the arbitrary action of the security forces is the cause:
– I deal with such cases every day. The faster the law enforcement authorities begin to work according to law, according to our Constitution, the fewer cases of people ”heading to the forest”, and other protest actions, we will see.
Human rights defenders and journalists perceive a growing threat against them. In 2009, fliers with explicit death threats against human rights defenders and journalists were spread in public. Although the perpetrators often are known, the authorities do little or nothing to bring those responsible to account.
Some of those who have fallen victims in recent years:
2011-The prominent journalist Hadzhimurad Kalamov is murdered on December 20
2010-Counsel Saipat Magomedova and four additional lawyers are severely beaten
2008-Human rights lawyer Mudunova miraculously survives after being shot in the head three times
2007-Judge Kasjaev, who worked with torture cases, is murdered
Population: 142.8 million (UN, 2011)
Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN, 2011)
President: Dmitri Medvedev (since 1994)
Other: Presidential Elections on March 4 this year
Source: BBC News
Population: 2.9 million (UN, 2010)
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 diminshed. Today the Presidents of the Republics are appointed by Moscow.
Tags: Mothers of Dagestan, Stockholm process, and Svetlana Isaeva.
Campaigns: Human rights defenders in focus.
Regions: The North Caucasus.