Fights for human rights in Russia’s most dangerous region

Lawyer Malika Abubakarova lives and works in Chechnya, where working with human rights is one of the most dangerous activities and where a fair trial is almost impossible to obtain.

Malika Abubakarova

This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on

The North Caucasus region consists of many regions, including the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Dagestan. In these regions, the basic principles of the rule of law are often set aside for the benefit of traditions and religious interpretations. This practice has cost many their lives.

At the same time, Malika’s story has shown that fighting for women’s rights can bring the situation forward, even where it seems almost impossible.

Guilty until proved innocent

Malika’s clients are mainly women. They are mothers who are deprived of their children after divorce, because the children then “belong” to the husband’s family. They are young women who are beaten up by family members or rejected and cast out by the family. Malika’s clients are hospitalized, they have been abducted, disappeared without a trace, or even killed.

The common feature for these cases, is that the authorities do not investigate them. There is an understanding that people outside the family should not interfere with family matters. What women do and experience is the family’s affairs. If a woman is charged, she is already considered guilty. If she has been unfaithful, has not been wearing the right clothes or done anything else that is not according to the right behaviour, it is up to the family to find a suitable punishment.

seeing women who are no longer afraid to approach the prosecutors with their problems, gives me hope

Malika Abubakarova

Throughout the decades, Malika has tried to defend these women with the law in her hands. As a lawyer, she must go deep into the family’s “dark rooms”, to uncover abuses and to find the evidence and stories that were never meant to see the light of day. For this work, she and her colleagues risk their own lives, as the reactions from both the authorities and the women’s families are strong.

Society in change

Despite the brutal reality she works in, she strongly believes in the meaning of her work.

– Saving every single life, achieving justice, even if only a few times, and seeing women who are no longer afraid to approach the prosecutors with their problems, gives me hope, says Malika.

Malika has also won several cases in the local courts. The conviction does not always resolve the situation, because traditions and customs often prevail and will therefore have greater consequences for the women themselves. But recognition in court, nevertheless, has great symbolic power.

When the national courts fail, one can apply to the European Court of Human Rights. The statistics show that the cases of human rights abuses from Russia, and especially the North Caucasus, has the highest number, and many cases are still emerging. Most cases concern the right to a fair trial, the right to life and freedom from torture.

Every case matters

There is a growing awareness about the challenge’s women in Russia and North Caucasus are facing. Several civil society organisations offer legal and social assistance, and more journalists are covering the topic. There is also a greater awareness among the women themselves, in relation to what rights one has, and what one can do if these are violated. More people refer to organisations for help than ever before.

Malika’s work makes her live dangerous, and therefore every single victory is so important for her. Many people have lost their lives fighting for human rights in Russia. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006, and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was killed in 2009. They both worked with disclosing abuses in Chechnya.

In Memory of Anna and Natalia

It is important for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee to make sure, that the world is aware about the situation in the North Caucasus, and about the work being done to change it.

Therefore, we established the pilot project “Natalia Estemirova’s Documentation Center” where documentation of serious abuse is being collected and systematized. In addition, we annually arrange a seminar in the memory of Anna Politkovskaya.

The work with disclosing abuses in Chechnya is continuing, both in Anna and Natalia’s memory. But the most important part of the job is done by people like Malika, who fights daily for justice in Russia’s most dangerous region for human rights defenders.



Inna Sangadzhieva

Senior Adviser, Russia and BelarusEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 97 69 94 58
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Hilde Sandvær

Communication AdviserEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 95 72 21 08Twitter: @HSandvr
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