Sloppily dressed, crudely spoken and more at ease with a Kalashnikov in his hands than with questions on what he does with it, Ramzan Kadyrov is not exactly someone you’d want to take home to meet your parents. The 32 year-old President of Russia’s Chechen Republic is again at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons following the murder of yet another of Russia’s human rights activists: Natalia Estemirova, a staunch critic of Kadyrov who was snatched outside her home last Wednesday morning and found dead and dumped at the roadside in neighbouring Ingushetia the following day.
Kadyrov, son of the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May 2004, has been in power since 2007. A former separatist fighter who switched sides, he has been chums with Putin ever since. Earlier this year and following the end to the anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya he promised to bring prosperity to the republic within 10 years and then resign. Although he has been upbeat about the republic’s potential (sometimes delusionally so after envisaging Chechnya as a “safe place to invest”) he has a tough job ahead of him; Chechnya is plagued by high unemployment and restlessness on its borders as well as within.
At what price stability?
A drive round Chechnya reveals posters and billboards bearing patriotic slogans and photos of Ramzan and his late father. Traces of the war that lead to Grozny being declared the most destroyed city in the world have all but been erased. On the outside then, perhaps, life is on the mend. But scratch away some of the newly painted surfaces and a more harsh reality, one where those who question Kadyrov’s rule are silenced, becomes all too clear.
In Kadyrov’s large repertoire of outlandish comments one finds the necessity of reintroducing polygamy in the republic to boost the population after the wars. Men should take up to 4 wives if they can afford it, he once suggested, although he has been yet to follow his own advice. However, comments with more serious implications are also commonplace: ones that reveal a reverence towards old, lawless “traditions” and indicate a systematic and essentially officially-sanctioned undermining of the already-fragile rule of law. On Friday, another of these comments came out. Kadyrov was reported in Kommersant as saying that it would not be only Chechnya’s law enforcement agencies that would be involved in the search for Estemirova’s killers, but that they would be dealt with by the “law of the mountain”. “In accordance with centuries-old traditions and the mentality of the Chechen people, others will also be searching for the criminals, using local methods, which are sometimes very effective,” he said.
The reality behind such comments has been at the centre of Human Rights Watch’s attention in recent months. Constitutional law is often pushed aside in the republic whilst Kadyrov’s own ideas of justice and order take priority. Investigators have reported being refused entry to a local government building without wearing a headscarf. This is despite the facts that she is not Muslim and that by law Russia is a secular country.
Further accounts reveal the reality of the “law of the mountain” when put into practice. These were published earlier this month in the report ‘What Your Children Do Will Touch Upon You': Punitive House-Burning in Chechnya (click to view) and were added to by further reports last week. Families of those alleged to have links with insurgents are subject to persecution and punitive house-burning. Reports were given of the police visiting distant and often aging relatives of the alleged criminals and blaming them for not having brought their child up well enough. HRW document an example of such “justice” that occurred earlier this month (abridged version).
Yunusova was taken into custody, placed under surveillance in a prison-type room of a hospital in Grozny, and reportedly underwent successful surgery for her wounds. However, she died under suspicious circumstances less than three days later.
On July 4, between 3 and 4 a.m., a group of armed servicemen broke into the Yunusov family compound, locked Madina’s parents and two younger sisters, ages 4 and 6, in a shed, doused the house with gasoline from inside and set it on fire. Soon afterward, they unlocked the shed and left. The Yunusovs fled several hours after the burning.
The next day, July 5, soon after dawn, Madina's corpse was delivered to her parents already-burned home. Law-enforcement officers reportedly said to neighbours, "Where are your neighbors? We brought a corpse for them."
When informed that the Yunusovs had left, the officers took the body, which was wrapped in a shroud, from their vehicle and gave it to the neighbors, cautioning them not to unwrap it. The neighbors notified the Yunusovs, who buried the body.
Add this to the further murky territory of public extra-judicial executions, such as one of a man accused of giving a sheep to insurgents being shot by law enforcement officials in front of a group of young men they had forcibly gathered to watch and the justice brought by the “law of the mountain” doesn’t really seem as such.
Reports in Kommersant of the reactions of witnesses to Estemirova’s abduction sum up everyday life in the republic. Those standing at the bus stop at 7:30am when Estemirova was bundled into a car by several armed men shouting “I’m being kidnapped” did not bother alerting the police to this event, which – one might have thought – appeared rather suspicious. Why not? They thought she was “just being arrested by some local security officials (kakie-to mestnye siloviki)”. Is this the face of Chechyna’s return to normality?