A prominent Russian reporter who revealed horrific details of a crackdown on gay men in Chechnya has told CNN she is in hiding after receiving death threats.
Elena Milashina, a journalist at the Russian-language Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said she abandoned her apartment in Moscow and plans to leave Russia altogether after Muslim clerics in Chechnya delivered a fiery sermon calling for “retribution" against her and other journalists.
"This is the first time we got that kind of threat, when 15,000 people got together in a mosque and announced jihad against all the staff of Novaya Gazeta," Milashina told CNN in an interview. “It will last forever until the last of us dies.”
Speaking to a packed mosque in the regional capital, Grozny, the clerics adopted a resolution calling for the "instigators" of the reports to be held to account. The sermon was broadcast in full on regional state television in Chechen and independently transcribed for CNN.
The editorial board of Novaya Gazeta released a statement calling the sermon "an incitement to massacre journalists." Shortly afterwards, the newspaper received two envelopes filled with white powder.
"We still don't know what the powder is. We have asked the security forces to check it," Milashina told CNN. “But all of us, including me, consider this situation is very serious."
The threats come after a series of reports first written by Milashina focusing attention on allegations of mass arrests and torture of gay men in the mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya, in southern Russia.
CNN has spoken to several victims who say they have fled the region after being detained and suffering horrifying abuses.
"They tied wires to my hands and put metal clips on my ears to electrocute me," said one victim, whose identity CNN agreed to hide for his safety.
"When they shock you, you jump high above the ground," he told CNN at an undisclosed location.
Chechen authorities have refused to acknowledge the violence, denying that there are any gay men in Chechnya.
The Kremlin says it has no confirmation of any gay men in Chechnya suffering abuse.
But the reports have clearly struck a nerve. Local Chechen television has broadcast footage of Muslim clerics condemning what they called “women's gossip" and "lies" in newspaper reports.
Threats against journalists not new
In a country where journalists are routinely beaten up or even killed for their work, the clerics’ remarks have been taken as a worrying development.
Novaya Gazeta is no stranger to violent threats against its staff. In 2006, its star Chechnya reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
And since 2000, at least five other Novaya Gazeta journalists have also been killed in Mafia-style hits, a grim testament to how dangerous reporting in Russia can be and the bravery of reporters like Milashina who continue to report on Chechnya.
"The only way to stop people who might possibly think of murdering my colleagues is to show them there will be another one," she told CNN.
Asked if she was prepared to put her life on the line for that ideal, Milashina replied: "Yes. Absolutely. That makes me much stronger than my enemies in Chechnya.”