When two ethnic Chechens were charged last week with the February 27 murder of Kremlin foe Boris Nemtsov, it was an unsurprising development.
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For a nation with a worldwide population of 1.5 million, the Chechens seem remarkably capable of popping up when convenient to Moscow.
In the 15 years since Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in power, men from the tiny, turbulent region in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus have been charged for the brazen Moscow murders of U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov in 2004 and Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered by radioactive poisoning in London in 2006, coauthored a book in which he accused Putin of orchestrating the 1999 apartment bombings, which killed hundreds of people in cities across Russia, as a pretext to enter the second Chechen war (Putin blamed the multiple blasts on Chechen rebels).
Today, Chechens Zaur Dadayev and Shagid Gubahsev have been charged with Nemtsov’s murder. Three more Chechen men remain in custody, while a sixth allegedly blew himself up with a grenade in the Chechen capital, Grozny, as police approached him. On Wednesday, a member of Russia’s Human Rights Council said Dadayev had been tortured and pressured into a fake confession.
In 2010, in the middle of my five-year post as correspondent for Reuters in Moscow, I attended a libel trial filed by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov against opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (where Politkovskaya had worked).
Kadyrov, widely seen as a loyal foot soldier to Putin, was suing the paper for damaging his reputation in a slew of articles, in which the barrel-chested leader was accused of torturing, murdering and kidnapping his fellow countrymen.
Two Chechen character witnesses arrived, who had clearly been instructed to testify to their estimations of Kadyrov’s “good nature.” Both men were extremely nervous, fidgety and – to my utter amazement – totally unprepared.
When asked by the judge for how long one of the men had known Kadyrov, he said it could have been one of three different years. While I could not report on such responses at the time (we operated, like all foreign news outlets, in an atmosphere of self-censorship), I kept my notes. Looking at them now, at the sheer audacity displayed by the powers that be, I am still overcome by shock.
Chechnya has a long history of opposition to its Slav, clumsy ruler, dating to the 18th century, when Imperial Russia began to expand south. Russians finally conquered the mountainous region in the 19th century, in vicious campaigns that inspired works of poignancy and empathy by writers Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy.
The entire Chechen population was accused by Josef Stalin in 1944 of collaborating with the Nazis, and was packed up in freight trains and expelled to Central Asia.
More recently, Chechnya is associated with the two bloody wars for independence of the 1990s and 2000s, which flattened Grozny and killed up to 160,000 people, including thousands of Russian soldiers.
Today, glistening skyscrapers dot the Grozny skyline and Chechnya has been largely rebuilt, thanks to millions of dollars in subsidies from Moscow. But in return, Kadyrov, a devout Muslim and former rebel fighter, is allowed to run the region as a personal fiefdom, keeping its residents in the grip of fear and living under certain aspects of strictly enforced Sharia law.
He has amassed his own militia, whom rights groups accuse of carrying out orders of torture, intimidation and abuse. They work against the backdrop of a low-level Islamist insurgency – believed to have originated from the remains of the independence movement – which has simmered across the North Caucasus for the past 15 years.
Rebels from the North Caucasus, mostly Chechens, have taken responsibility for a slew of terrorist attacks, including the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 and, more recently, the 2013 suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd.
With such a tumultuous history, Chechen grievances against Moscow may seem justified. As a reporter, I extensively covered the North Caucasus, and I travelled to Chechnya repeatedly.
A hauntingly beautiful, fascinating corner of the world’s largest country, its war-weary population touched me by their extraordinary ability to remain hospitable.
It was also a place of darkness: I witnessed firsthand the long shadow of Islamic-inspired ideology, such as the clampdown on women’s freedoms, promotion of polygamy and violent opposition to alcohol.
Freedom of speech, likewise, was worse in Chechnya than in other parts of Russia. Interviewing its population – from rights workers to random youths on the streets – was extremely difficult in an atmosphere of deep-seated horror and widespread intimidation.
To most ordinary Russians, Chechnya is seen as a bastion of violence and Islamist hatred. Playing into this fear, Kadyrov said this week that former policeman Dadayev killed Nemtsov – who was shot four times as he walked with his girlfriend near the Kremlin – out of allegiance to Islam. The Chechen leader maintains that Nemtsov’s praise for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo spurred the “deeply religious” Dadayev to murderous violence.
Russia’s all-powerful Investigative Committee has said it was looking into several lines of inquiry, including whether Islamist extremists were behind the killing.
Friends of Nemtsov have dismissed the claims, arguing that the politician barely spoke of the magazine’s caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Opposition activist and Nemtsov ally Ilya Yashin said the link to Charlie Hebdo was created in order to take Putin “out of the firing line.”
In a move that points toward the coordinated nature of recent events, Putin awarded Kadyrov with a prize last Monday. The Kremlin said the timing of the Order of Honour was coincidental, but critics were quick to indicate that such official praise was endorsement for Kadyrov’s version of events surrounding Nemtsov’s murder.
Putting Chechens on trial, and accusing them – repeatedly – of violent crimes, feed into Russian paranoia. The more they sit trial, the more the accusations seem plausible. While the Chechen men sitting behind bars for high-profile killings may have indeed been the ones to pull the trigger (we will never know), they are almost certainly not those who ordered the murders.