Russian investigators' working theory that opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov was killed by Caucasus Muslim extremists began to unravel Wednesday when a human-rights monitor said the key suspect appeared to have been tortured into confessing.
Russian Human Rights Commission member Andrei Babushkin told state-run and foreign media that former Chechnya police commander Zaur Dadayev had "numerous wounds" on his body when the rights advocate visited him in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo prison on Tuesday.
Dadayev, one of five men of Chechen origin taken before a Moscow court Sunday, reportedly confessed to the killing, Basmanny District Court Judge Natalia Mushnikova said after the suspects' appearance.
But Dadayev has launched an appeal of his reported plea. He told Babushkin he had only agreed to take responsibility for the killing to spare a detained friend and because he had been mistreated during two days of detention after his arrest Saturday in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus region of Ingushetia.
Babushkin's report in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which was also carried by the official Tass and Sputnik news agencies, provoked a warning from the Russian Investigative Committee that is leading the probe into Nemtsov's Feb. 27 killing.
Babushkin's visit "was organized exclusively to examine the conditions of [Dadayev's] detention," the committee said in an unsigned statement posted Wednesday on its website. Rights monitor Babushkin and Moskovsky Komsomolets journalist Eva Merkacheva "being no part of the criminal process ... have engaged in such actions that may be regarded as interference in the investigation," the committee statement said.
It made no mention of the reported torture but said Babushkin and Merkacheva would be questioned by investigators.
Babashkin also spoke with two other suspects in the Nemtsov case, brothers Anzor and Shagid Gubashev, the latter also telling the rights activist that he had been beaten.
Chechens have been implicated in previous killings of Kremlin critics, including the 2006 slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, portraying the deaths as the work of Muslim extremists acting on their own agenda. But the accusation against Dadayev, a close friend of President
Kadyrov has succeeded in suppressing fresh rebellion in Chechnya since the secessionist uprisings of the 1990s, and he is known to covet a more influential place in the Kremlin hierarchy in return for his service. Much of the Kremlin appointee's ability to contain Chechen separatism has been due to his iron-clad control of the police and interior forces there — armed units that could be turned against Kremlin interests if Kadyrov so decides.
Putin on Tuesday bestowed the Order of Honor on Kadyrov, who expressed his loyalty to the Kremlin leader at the ceremony said to have been arranged before the Nemtsov killing. Analysts have variously interpreted the award as an effort by Putin to deter any destabilizing rogue action by Kadyrov, if he was indeed behind the Nemtsov hit, or as a subtle warning that the Chechen shouldn't get involved in actions that reverberate beyond Chechnya.
Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister and the most outspoken of Russia's largely repressed opposition leaders, was shot to death just yards from the Kremlin as he walked home with his Ukrainian girlfriend.
The Russian Investigative Committee identified Dadayev and the four others on Saturday. Kadyrov on the same day praised Dadayev as a patriot and devout Muslim angered by Nemtsov's criticism of the Jan. 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.
Muslim extremists killed a dozen people at the French satirical magazine headquarters, reportedly for having published cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Muhammad.