By Andrew Osborn

(Reuters) -Armed masked men attacked and seriously injured a prominent female Russian journalist and a lawyer in the Russian region of Chechnya on Tuesday morning after forcing their car to stop, the journalist, her employer and rights groups said.

Yelena Milashina, a well-known journalist for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was travelling to the Chechen capital Grozny from the local airport with Alexander Nemov, a lawyer, when they were attacked.

Milashina and Nemov, who had planned to attend a court hearing in the case of a woman they believed was being unjustly persecuted for political reasons, are being transferred to a hospital in a neighbouring region, rights groups said.

“It was a classic kidnapping… They pinned (our driver) down, threw him out of his car, got in, bent our heads down, tied my hands, knelt me down there, and put a gun to my head,” Milashina told Mansur Soltayev, a Chechen human rights official, as she lay in hospital in Grozny before being transferred.

Memorial, a rights group outlawed in Russia, said that Milashina and Nemov had been “brutally kicked, including in the face, threatened with death, had a gun held to their heads, and had their equipment taken away and smashed.”

“While being beaten, they were told: ‘You have been warned. Get out of here and don’t write anything,’” Memorial said in a statement on Telegram.

A photograph of Milashina, whose newspaper was stripped of its licence in Russia last year, showed her sitting on a hospital bed with her face covered in green dye, her head shaved, and bandages on her left arm and right hand amid reports that several of her fingers had been broken.

There was no immediate comment on the incident from the authorities in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim southern region ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power after two bloody wars that followed the 1991 Soviet breakup.


Some Russian lawmakers and officials in Moscow condemned the attack which they said needed investigating. Mokhmad Akhmadov, a senator from Chechnya, was cited by the state RIA news agency as saying he believed Kadyrov would get to the bottom of things and that he did not think the attack had been sanctioned at an official level.

Milashina has spent years investigating purported human rights abuses in Chechnya, including what she said was the mass arrest and torture of gay men in the region, and had received many threats before, including to her life.

Her employer evacuated her from Russia last year after Kadyrov described her as a terrorist in a social media post and she was assaulted in Chechnya in 2020.

Kadyrov denies rights abuses, saying such allegations are fabricated by ill-wishers trying to discredit Chechnya and its authorities.

The masked men who attacked Milashina on Tuesday shaved her head, broke several of her fingers and covered her head with green dye, according to Memorial, which said she had lost consciousness several times.

Rights group “Team against Torture” said Nemov, the lawyer accompanying her, had been stabbed in the leg and cited him as saying that the masked attackers had used three cars to block the vehicle which he and Milashina had been travelling in.

Milashina and Nemov were in Chechnya to cover the sentencing of Zarema Musayeva, a Chechen woman charged with assaulting a policeman and fraud – charges she denied – in a case critics see as revenge against her sons and husband who are seen as disloyal by Kadyrov and have fled the country.

A Chechen court on Tuesday found Musayeva guilty and sentenced her to five-and-a-half years in a penal colony.

A Russian court last year stripped Novaya Gazeta, led by Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace laureate, of its media licence, a move Muratov said was politically-motivated.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; editing by)

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