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Russia25 October 2007

Brutal attack by police on documentary filmmaker and her family

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On the eve of an EU-Russia summit in Mafra (Portugal), Reporters Without Borders today condemned an assault on documentary filmmaker Natalia Petrova and her family by plain-clothes police in the Tatar capital of Kazan, 720 km east of Moscow, on 6 September as “horrible and incomprehensible” and demanded an immediate investigation to identify and punish those responsible.

“It is no longer possible for the authorities to ignore what happened, and if Natalia Petrova or her family are the victims of reprisals again, we will regard the government as an accomplice,” the press freedom organisation said. “As President Putin’s term of office draws to a close, we see that violence against journalists has not been stopped and there are regions where total impunity prevails.”

The direct cause of the attack on Petrova is hard to establish. According to an unconfirmed reported on a Tatar news agency’s website, she allegedly opposed a summons to go to a police station to answer a charge of defamation.

There appear to be several underlying factors. Andrey Mironov of the organisation Memorial, who met her in Chechnya, is convinced she was attacked because of her work and the films she has made, and because she is married to a man of Chechen origin. Her husband had to move away from the family because he was exposing them to threats. Their nine-year-old twin daughters were attacked several times at school because of his origin.

Mironov says what has changed is the government’s attitude to members of civil society. “We are witnessing a clear increase in pressure and harassment,” he said.

The assault on Petrova began outside her daughters’ school after she had taken them there. She thought she was being kidnapped when two men, one smelling strongly of alcohol, grabbed her and told her they were going to put her in a psychiatric hospital until the elections were over. She managed to get away and ran home, where she found her mother, Nina Petrova, 70. She tried to phone the police but the line had been disconnected. She finally asked her father, Gennadi Petrov, 84, to fetch the girls from school.

When her father came back with the girls a few hours later, three plain-clothes policemen entered the apartment and attacked her. They hit her repeatedly in the neck, hands and legs. One of them stamped on her hands, saying: “This way, you won’t be able to write any more.” They hit her until she lost consciousness.

In the meantime, her father had been pushed into a corner of the room while her mother, who tried to get between her daughter and her assailants, has sustained several blows to her stomach and other parts of her body. Her daughters had also been manhandled when they tried to defend her and one of them lost a tooth. During the attack, the three policemen made phone calls to a man called “Slava” (the diminutive of Viacheslav), who gave them orders and told them “reinforcements” were on the way. They then handcuffed Petrova and dragged her outside. Alerted by the cries, neighbours tried in vain to protest. One of them called an ambulance but the policemen sent it away, claiming there had been a “false alarm.”

Petrova was thrown into a police car parked in front of the building. They continued to hit her and then to burn her with cigarettes. After losing consciousness again, she found herself in the courtyard of the headquarters of the Moskovsky district police in Kazan. She spent several hours in a cell and was then released.

When contacted by Reporters Without Borders, Petrova was very worried about the safety of herself and her family. She continues to get threatening phone calls. Her daughters are traumatised by what happened to their mother and refuse to go out or go to school. One of them is in bed with a high fever. Her grandmother is also confined to her bed and is still suffering from the blows she received.

Petrova said she recognised the voice of the man who was giving orders to her assailants by phone. It was Viacheslav Prokofiev, the head of the local police department. She already had contact with him in 2005, during a presidential summit in Kazan. Two men tried to drag her away with them as she was waiting for a bus to go to the summit. A criminal investigation was opened, but yielded nothing.

Petrova worked in Chechnya during the first war there. She has also worked in Abkhazia and Karabakh. She said she thought she would find peace in Tatarstan but discovered she was wrong. “How much do we hav

e to experience before we finally realise what is going on?” she said. “His men were laughing while they were hitting me.” She insisted that what had happened to her should be made public, not just for her own sake but also for the sake of all the others who have experienced the same kind of violence.

Petrova, whose films include “Abkhazia mon amour,” “Children of Karabakh” and “Ancient land of the Chechens,” has been exposed to many other forms of harassment in recent years.

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