A Russian investigative journalist and a lawyer were severely beaten in the southern Russian region of Chechnya on Tuesday, in an attack that stood out for its brutality in a country accustomed to the steady restriction of freedom of speech.
Elena Milashina, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta who uncovered the torture and killings of gay men in Chechnya, was in Grozny, the Chechen capital, to cover the trial of Zarema Musayeva, the mother of exiled opposition activists, according to the newspaper. Ms. Milashina and the attorney, Alexander Nemov, who is representing Ms. Musayeva, were blocked by cars as they drove through the city, according to Novaya Gazeta.
Masked men beat them with clubs, then took their phones and demanded that they unlock them, the newspaper said in a statement. Equipment and documents were also destroyed.
Ms. Milashina suffered brain injuries, her fingers were broken and she repeatedly lost consciousness, the statement added. The attackers also doused her in liquid iodine, in an apparent attempt to prevent her from appearing in public. Mr. Nemov was stabbed in the leg, it said.
A photo posted by the newspaper with Ms. Milashina’s permission showed the journalist sitting on a hospital gurney in Grozny with her hands bandaged up to her wrists and most of her hair shaved off.
“It was a classic kidnapping,” Ms. Milashina said from the gurney in a brief video published on social media. “Just that such things haven’t happened in a while.”
Another video showed Ms. Milashina fainting in a hospital hallway in the neighboring region of North Ossetia, after being evacuated from Chechnya.
The group Reporters Without Borders, which advocates press freedom and tracks violence against journalists, said on Tuesday that it was “horrified by the savage attack” on Ms. Milashina. Six journalists with Novaya Gazeta, an independent news outlet, have been killed in its three decades of existence. The editor of the publication, Dmitri A. Muratov, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. The paper suspended publication in Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 because of wartime censorship laws, but some of its reporters have continued to work in exile.
In early 2022, Ms. Musayeva was taken from her apartment building in central Russia, pushed into a black S.U.V. and taken to Chechnya. Ms. Musayeva’s abduction was widely viewed as being part of a hunt for two of her sons, Abubakar and Ibragim Yangulbayev, prominent government critics who had infuriated Ramzan Kadyrov, the autocratic leader of Chechnya.
Mr. Kadyrov had previously called Ms. Milashina a “terrorist accomplice” for her coverage of the Yangulbayev family.
The severity of the beatings, for which the authorities have not named suspects, provoked a rare reaction from Russian officials.
A senior lawmaker in the ruling United Russia party, Andrei Klishas, called for an investigation, and the Kremlin said the government’s human rights ombudswoman had contacted the prosecutor’s office about the attack.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, added that President Vladimir V. Putin had been notified of Ms. Milashina’s status. “We are talking about a very serious assault that requires quite energetic measures,” he said in his daily press briefing on Tuesday.
Mr. Peskov’s rare acknowledgment of this instance of human rights abuse in Russia points to the complexity of the government’s relationship with Mr. Kadyrov.
Mr. Putin has long relied on the Chechen leader’s rule to maintain hold of the restive, predominantly Muslim region. Mr. Kadyrov has also become an important Kremlin ally in Ukraine, sending thousands of Chechen paramilitaries to Russian-occupied territories there.
However, ultranationalist factions in Mr. Putin’s alliance have implied that the Kremlin has handed over security in Chechnya to Mr. Kadyrov and his forces, and see it as a sign of weakness.
Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.