Prominent investigative journalist Yelena Milashina has been badly beaten by masked men moments after flying in to the Russian republic of Chechnya.
She described being forced out of a car, hit with plastic pipes and having her head shaved and doused in green dye not far from the airport.
Ms Milashina has received death threats in the past from Chechnya’s notorious leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
She was travelling with lawyer Alexander Nemov, who was also wounded.
They had just arrived at Grozny airport to attend a court verdict for a mother of three exiled Kadyrov critics. But they were unable to make the hearing, where Zarema Musayeva was given a five-and-a-half-year jail term on charges condemned as politically motivated.
Chechnya has been run by Ramzan Kadyrov since 2007. A staunch ally of Vladimir Putin and a cheerleader for the war in Ukraine, he has been widely accused of ordering extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture at home.
The journalist and lawyer described how their car had been ambushed by a group of at least 10 masked men in three cars a short distance from the airport. She said later they believed the men had been waiting for them inside the airport.
“It was a classic kidnapping,” Yelena Milashina told a Chechen human rights official in hospital in Grozny. “They pinned down then threw our driver out of his car, climbed in, bent our heads down, tied my hands, forced me to my knees and put a gun to my head.”
“They threw us on the side of the road and started kicking us in the face, all over the body… they stabbed me in the leg,” Mr Nemov was quoted as telling the Russian bar association.
They were then dragged into a ravine, Ms Milashina explained later, and the men started beating them with plastic polypropylene pipes, demanding that they unlock their mobile phones. She explained her password was too complicated to tap in while being beaten.
“They didn’t understand, and by the time they did they had already shaved me and poured green dye on me and I didn’t see a thing,” she told Sergei Babinets of rights group Crew against Torture.
Although the dye is used as an antiseptic, it has also been used in earlier attacks on dissidents in Russia, including Alexei Navalny.
She suffered a brain injury from the beating and was initially diagnosed with three broken fingers, although doctors said later they were still intact.
Alexander Nemov was also badly injured and Crew against Torture posted an image showing the stab wound to his leg. Ms Milashina said the polypropylene pipes they were beaten with were “very painful” and usually used on detainees.
The Kremlin said it was a very serious attack that had to be investigated. But Memorial, a human rights group banned by Russia, said there was no doubt that the Moscow and Grozny authorities were “united in their actions”.
Ms Milashina fled Russia for some time in February 2022 after Kadyrov had called her a terrorist, saying “we have always eliminated terrorists and their accomplices”. She was attacked in 2020 alongside another lawyer, Marina Dubrovina.
Her investigative reporting detailing human rights abuses in Chechnya followed in the footsteps of two women who were murdered for similar work there. In 2006 Novaya Gazeta colleague Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow, while her friend and campaigner Natalia Estemirova was abducted and shot in Grozny.
Ms Milashina told the BBC’s Ukrainecast only last week that she was fully aware that Kadyrov and his entourage could “easily fulfil” the death threats he had issued.
“I’m kind of getting used to it because, several times almost every year, Kadyrov is passing threats to my address or the address of journalists of Novaya Gazeta… He behaves like [he’s] the owner of the Chechnya region.”
Amnesty International condemned what it called “this cowardly assault” and urged the Russian authorities to “swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of those who seek truth and justice”.
A senior official at the Council of Europe, a major human rights watchdog, said it was “deeply worrying that this incident is part of a disturbing pattern of attacks on journalists and collaborators of Novaya Gazeta”. The official, Dunja Mijatovic, urged the council’s member states to “demand accountability and stand by journalists in the Russian Federation”.
Last year the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader sent troops, known as “Kadyrovtsy”, into Ukraine, where they have built a reputation for brutality. He has also been linked to the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
He was handed the presidency of the southern Russian republic by Mr Putin three years after his father was assassinated as president in 2004.
When Zarema Musayeva, 53, was detained by Chechen security officers last year, 1,800km (1,120 miles) north of Grozny, Kadyrov said the entire family should either be “in prison or underground”.
Musayeva’s three sons all fled Chechnya after they spoke out online about the Chechen leader’s human rights abuses. Her husband, a former judge, was at one point detained, but also fled.