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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fame, Death Threats for Nobel Finalist

ReutersYusupova, nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, is accustomed to death threats. "These people are so weak and helpless," she says of her enemies.
The call came in on Lidia Yusupova's cell phone at 9 a.m., Thursday morning.

"The number was blocked, and the man was speaking Chechen," Yusupova said. "He said I might not be alive long enough to collect the award."

Yusupova, a Grozny lawyer who has spent the past several years gathering evidence of human rights abuses in Chechnya and fighting for victims, was nominated earlier this month for the Nobel Peace Prize. On Friday, the Nobel Committee will announce the winner in Oslo.

She declined to speculate on who placed the anonymous call, but she takes death threats in stride.

"I told him that if he were a real man he would come and threaten me to my face," said Yusupova, who is temporarily living in Moscow. "It's always amusing to me. These people are so weak and helpless that all they can do is make anonymous threats."

Yusupova, 46, garnered the nomination for her work at the Grozny office of the human rights group Memorial. She is one of 191 nominees this year; oddsmakers say she has a good chance of winning.

Last month, Centrebet, an Australian online sports-betting service, put Yusupova's odds at 12-to-1. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who signed a peace agreement last year with Aceh separatist rebels, is the odds-on favorite: His chances are 3-to-1. Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who brokered the agreement, is 4-to-1.

No citizen of post-Soviet Russia has ever won the Nobel Peace Prize. Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov won the award in 1975 and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev won in 1990.

A Grozny native, Yusupova studied law at Chechnya State University.

She said winning the prize would be a "great victory" that could help bring international attention to the kidnappings, illegal detentions and torture that continue to plague the republic.

While the military has curtailed its sweep operations since the second Chechen war broke out in 1999, danger is still prevalent, she said. "Everyone still lives in fear of the arbitrary behavior of the powers that be."

Yusupova said she was honored just to have been nominated for the peace prize, adding that there were more deserving Russian rights activists such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The 48-year-old Novaya Gazeta reporter was gunned down Saturday in an apparent contract killing in her apartment building in Moscow.

Politkovskaya's death would only strengthen the resolve of rights activists in Chechnya, Yusupova predicted. "Everyone who has ever worked with her feels it is their duty to carry on her work," she said.

Yusupova has already earned international recognition for her work. In 2004, she won the Martin Ennals Award for human rights, and last year she was awarded Norway's Rafto Prize. Since the Rafto Prize for human rights was inaugurated in 1987, four recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Human rights activists at home and abroad describe Yusupova as a fearless lawyer adored by the young men she has defended and the families of those who have disappeared.

"She is an absolutely dedicated and inspiring person, without whom our successful litigation at Strasbourg could not have happened," British human rights lawyer Bill Bowring, who has represented Chechen clients in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, said by e-mail Wednesday.

Yusupova, Bowring said, has shown "extraordinary courage and tenacity in continuing her work in Grozny in the most difficult conditions."

Ibragim Zubairayev, a spokesman for the office of Chechnya's human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, praised Yusupova's courage. But he said Yusupova might have overstated the seriousness of human rights abuses, saying many problems have abated in recent years.

Usam Baisayev, a Memorial activist in Nazran, recalled a young man giving Yusupova a macrame pen cover for defending him. The man, Baisayev said, had woven the pen cover from threads he had pulled from his socks while in detention. The words "To my favorite lawyer" were woven into the gift.

Yusupova remembers the young man. "The last I heard, he was somewhere in the Arkhangelsk region serving a 20-year sentence," she said. "Murder, illegal gang activity. They threw the book at him. He was only 19."

She said the man told her he had been tortured and sexually assaulted while he was in police custody. "He said he was in Ingushetia when the murder they charged him with was committed," Yusupova said. "I asked him why he'd signed a written confession, and he said, 'I'd rather serve 20 years than have to put up with such shame.'"

After completing a Ford Foundation fellowship in Moscow, Yusupova said, she plans to return to Chechnya. She does not expect her work to get any safer. "There were, are and will be threats," she said.