January 25, 2009
Death squad stalks exiled Chechens
Critics of the president are scared – one has been shot and a hit list has emerged
Mark Franchetti in Moscow
WHEN Umar Israilov fled his native Chechnya for Austria four years ago, he felt safe, believing that the men who had tortured him could not hunt him down in the West.
Last summer, however, he spotted a fellow Chechen following him in Vienna. Israilov was warned that his name was on a secret hit list of at least 300 exiles who had criticised Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Russian president. Israilov told the Austrian police, who knew about the list, that his life was in danger because he had accused Kadyrov of torture and kidnapping, but his pleas for protection were ignored.
Earlier this month, the 27-year-old Chechen stepped out of his small Vienna flat to buy groceries for his heavily pregnant wife and three small children. He spotted the gunmen at once and, in an attempt to save himself, sprinted along a busy road. At least two heavily built men gave chase, shooting and causing cars to screech to a halt and shoppers to throw themselves to the ground.
Israilov stumbled as the hit squad caught up with him. He was shot three times and died. The killers escaped.
The murder has spread fear among thousands of Chechen exiles. At least one suspect has been detained but proving who sent the killers is almost impossible. “It sends a stark message to all of us,” said a friend of Israilov’s family. “You can run but you can’t hide.”
It emerged last week that a Chechen named only as Arbi had gone to the Austrian police after approaching Israilov in an attempt to lure him home. When Israilov refused, Arbi warned him to withdraw a complaint lodged with the European Court of Human Rights, in which he accused Kadyrov of systematic use of torture and kidnapping.
Arbi, who feared for his own safety, told the police he had been sent by Kadyrov’s right-hand man and promised £65,000 for every target he brought back. The Austrians deported him to Russia and his fate is unknown.
The police have now begun to contact Chechen exiles whose names appear on a further death list published on the internet. Some 100 officers and a police helicopter were deployed in Vienna last week for Israilov’s funeral.
Akhmed Zakayev, a former Chechen rebel commander granted asylum in Britain whose name is on the internet list, said: “There have been many murders and very few consequences, so they know they can get away with it.”
Israilov was a former rebel who fought the Russians when they crushed Chechnya’s bid for independence. He was detained in 2003 by a pro-Moscow militia run by Kadyrov, whose father, Akhmad, was president at the time.
Israilov was held and tortured for three months by Kadyrov’s men. He alleged that Kadyrov had personally administered electric shocks. “It feels as if your muscles are going to explode,” he said later in an interview. “It was as if you were being torn apart.”
In return for an amnesty, Israilov joined the militia and worked as a bodyguard for Kadyrov. He claimed to have witnessed countless acts of brutality, including extrajudicial killings. It made him a dangerous witness when he reached the West.
In 2004 his father, Ali Israilov, was kidnapped, tortured and held by Kadyrov’s men for 10 months. In an interview with The Sunday Times after his release he said he had seen Kadyrov personally give electric shocks to a prisoner.
Ali Israilov has since fled Chechnya and, like his son, was granted asylum in a European country. Last week he said his son had told him about Arbi and the death list. Both he and his son’s widow now have police protection.
“How is it possible that the Austrian police left my son out to dry like this?” he asked. “Why didn’t they take my son’s warning seriously and give him proper protection?”
Israilov’s widow , 28, added: “We’re living in fear. I don’t know what to do.”
Israilov was far from the first opponent of the Chechen president to have been murdered outside Chechnya. Last year the brother of Sulim Yamadayev, a field commander and bitter rival of Kadyrov, was killed outside the British embassy in Moscow as he sat in his car at a red light. Two years ago in the Russian capital, 50 of Kadyrov’s policemen gunned down Movladi Baisarov, a warlord who had clashed with the Chechen president.
In a double murder linked to Chechnya, but unrelated to Kadyrov, a human rights lawyer and a journalist were shot in the centre of Moscow last week. Stanislav Markelov, the lawyer, had represented the family of a Chechen woman killed by a Russian army colonel. Anastasia Baburova, 25, the journalist, was shot as she tried to apprehend his killer.
Kadyrov rejects claims that he or his men have killed, abducted or tortured their opponents. Last week his spokesman said no man by the name of Israilov had worked for Kadyrov and suggested that Chechen refugees made false allegations to claim asylum in the West.
“As long as Kadyrov’s men have the Kremlin’s protection they can do whatever they want,” said one Chechen refugee. “Israilov’s murder shows that no one is safe. More killings are sure to follow.”