In Chechnya, critics beware

There is a disturbing pattern in the deaths and disappearances of more than a dozen critics and political rivals of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The victims range from human rights activists to former warlords and have little in common beyond having challenged the Kremlin-backed leader of the North Caucasus republic. They have been killed or kidnapped in Moscow, Vienna and Istanbul, as well as in the Chechen capital of Grozny. In some cases there is circumstantial evidence linking the cases to Kadyrov, and in others there is no evidence, just suspicion. Like anyone else, Kadyrov deserves the presumption of innocence, but he does not deserve impunity. Moscow must investigate the criminal allegations against its man in Chechnya.

The latest allegations come from the office of Austria’s public prosecutor, which released the results of a yearlong investigation into the killing of Umar S. Israilov, a onetime Chechen rebel turned whistle-blower who had worked as a bodyguard for Kadyrov before seeking exile in Vienna. The report says that Kadyrov ordered the kidnapping of Israilov, who was shot dead as he tried to escape his abductors. Israilov had filed a case in the European Court of Human Rights accusing Kadyrov of participating in murder, abductions and torture, and reportedly had been warned to withdraw it. Three Chechen suspects were taken into custody in Vienna and a fourth fled to Moscow after leaving a trail of clues linking the suspects to the scene of the crime and to Kadyrov, who has denied involvement.

Six weeks after Israilov’s killing, another former Chechen rebel and Kadyrov rival was shot dead in a parking garage in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and one of the president’s confidants is wanted in connection with that contract-style killing. Sulim B. Yamadayev’s brother, Ruslan, was shot dead in Moscow in 2008, as were three other former rebels in Turkey. These and other cases bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the killing of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, who was abducted and executed near her Grozny home. Kadyrov reportedly had threatened her for her work documenting the political killings, torture and other human rights abuses committed by his government in Chechnya, then offered to oversee the investigation into her death. A year later, a Russian investigation into Estemirova’s death is ongoing, slowed by a lack of cooperation from witnesses in Chechnya, according to Human Rights Watch. That isn’t good enough. There are too many cases to be ignored. Moscow must seriously investigate and resolve the cases pointing at Kadyrov, and clarify whether he is getting away with murder.