Ramzan Kadyrov rules the Caucasus republic through fear and oppression, amid reports of torture. But those seeking asylum in Europe are not safe, as assassins hunt them down.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili spent a long time living on the edge. He survived several years of partisan warfare against Russian forces in Chechnya.
“I think he felt much safer here. He was only thinking about building a bright future in Germany, also for the children, not about fighting or going back there,” said Manana Tsatieva, Khangoshvili’s ex-wife, who lives in Germany with their four children.
But it was here, in the centre of Europe, that Khangoshvili finally met his end. Late last month, shortly after leaving home to go to the mosque, a man approached him in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten and shot him twice in the head. He died immediately.
The suspected assassin, who was held by police soon after he was spotted tossing a wig and a gun into the river, has so far maintained his silence. He was travelling on a Russian passport apparently issued under a false identity, boosting suspicions about a hit ordered by Russian security services or by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Whoever ordered the hit, the killing has once again underlined the perilous position of thousands of Chechens in Europe, fearing retribution from home but unable to win asylum. Germany had rejected a request for asylum for Khangoshvili and his family, and ignored a request to give him protection because of threats on his life.
Khangoshvili was the latest in a trail of killings over the past decade in which insurgency figures and other enemies of Kadyrov have been shot dead, wherever they may be hiding.
In 2009, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov, who had publicly stated he had been personally tortured by Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna. The same year, a political rival to Kadyrov, Sulim Yamadayev, was shot dead in Dubai. Local police accused a Chechen politician close to Kadyrov of supplying the murder weapon. There have been half a dozen prominent Chechens killed in Istanbul over the past decade, with Turkish authorities believing Russian security services are involved. And in Ukraine, where Chechens have joined volunteer battalions fighting pro-Russian forces, the Chechen fighter Amina Okuyeva was killed in an ambush of her car in 2017. Her husband and battalion commander, Adam Osmayev, was wounded but survived. Previously, the pair had been targeted by a Chechen hitman pretending to be a French journalist from Le Monde who had come to interview them.
Chechnya under Kadyrov has become one of the world’s most sinister human rights blackspots. The son of a former independence fighter who switched sides, Kadyrov has used Russian cash to rebuild the republic from the ruins of war and has been given a free hand to rule as he pleases in return for pledging allegiance to Vladimir Putin. In recent years, his security forces have carried out extrajudicial round-ups of a wide array of groups, including suspected militants, government critics, those deemed to have the wrong kind of beard or those who are suspected of being gay. There is widespread testimony of his forces using torture.
Unlike Khangoshvili, the majority of recent Chechen arrivals in Europe have had nothing to do with the former insurgency, and are instead those who have fled threats and torture, leaving their homes as a last resort. But just like Khangoshvili, most of these people struggle to secure asylum, amid increasing hostility to migration in western Europe – especially Muslim migration.
In Germany, Poland and other EU countries, several thousand Chechens are in legal limbo and risk deportation back to Russia, despite having what should be textbook asylum claims: victims of torture with credible threats against their lives and their families. Having made the arduous journey to western Europe, they are often dismissed as economic migrants or potential radical Islamists and told to go back home.
For many Chechen refugees, their ordeal begins in Brest, a Belarussian town close to the border with Poland. This is the closest that Chechens, who usually hold Russian passports, can get to the EU without a visa. Each morning a train leaves Brest on the short ride to the Polish border, usually with around 200 Chechens on board. They are obliged to travel in a separate carriage from other passengers.
At the border, Polish guards pick no more than one family a day whom they allow to place an asylum claim; the rest are simply sent back on the same train. Earlier this summer a Chechen man cut his veins at the border in desperation: his reward was a stamp in his passport automatically disbarring him from any further attempts, said Enira Bronitskaya, a Belarusian rights activist.
Ayub Abumuslimov and his family spent five months living in a cold, damp apartment in Brest, taking the train several times a week in the hope of being selected for asylum. Abumuslimov fled Chechnya after the disappearance of his brother Apti from the town of Shali in January 2017. Apti was kidnapped, along with a neighbour, and taken to the local police station. He was never seen again. Many other people disappeared at the same time, and Apti featured in a list of 27 people published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as potential victims of an extrajudicial execution by local law enforcement.
The problems for the rest of the family started when they began writing complaints about what had happened. In June 2017, Abumuslimov said, his car was stopped by men in plain clothes and he was bundled into the back of another car. He was taken to an undisclosed location, where he was held and tortured for more than two months.
Abumuslimov described simple beatings, as well as more sinister treatment, including electric shocks. The worst, he said, was salt torture, where his hands and legs were cuffed and large quantities of salt were poured into his mouth. When he was on the point of choking, he would be given water to drink, causing extreme pain as the salt passed through his body.
“They wanted me to sign a form saying my brother was fighting in Syria and we had no complaints about law enforcement. I refused,” he said. His tormentors wore official police uniforms, though all but two of them were in masks. He was released after more than two months.
It is not possible to verify the details of Abumuslimov’s claims of torture, but they tally with an overwhelming number of similar stories from Chechens unfortunate enough to find themselves in the hands of Kadyrov’s security forces. Maria Książak, a psychologist who is now treating Abumuslimov, said: “He displays all the signs of someone who has been through serious trauma.”
After his release, Abumuslimov and his extended family fled Chechnya for Brest, with the aim of making it to western Europe. It took them five months and 40 train journeys before Polish border guards finally allowed them to file an asylum claim. But even in Poland, he was not safe.
While Polish authorities processed their claim in the town of Biala Podlaska, Abumuslimov gave a media interview about the family’s plight. Shortly afterwards, as he was leaving a supermarket in the town, a car drove up with three people inside. They tried to drag him into the back seat but he fought back, dropped his shopping and ran.
“A couple of days later I was called from a Russian number and a Chechen voice said, ‘You thought we won’t find you in Poland? We’ll find you anywhere.’ ” The family fled to Germany, where they lodged a new asylum claim, but have so far been rejected due to the regulation that asylum seekers must apply in the “first safe country”, which German authorities deem to be Poland.
There are many Chechens with similar stories who do not speak publicly for fear of reprisals against their families back in Chechnya, but Abumuslimov said he and his family want to go public because they refuse to be intimidated, and want to get justice for Apti. They are also launching a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.
“The most unbelievable violations occur on a daily basis in Chechnya, it is by far the worst place in Europe for rights abuses, but because Kadyrov silences the victims of violence, we get a lot of information and evidence that we can’t use, because if we do the whole family will be targeted,” said Russian rights activist Ekaterina Sokirianskaya.
The case of Tumso Abdurakhmanov provides a rare documented insight into the way Kadyrov’s regime threatens Chechens in Europe. Abdurakhmanov was working for a telecommunications company in Grozny, Chechnya when he says he was apprehended as a suspected radical due to his long beard. Authorities insisted he had gone to fight in Syria, a claim he says is false. He fled to Georgia and eventually to Poland, where he started a video blog denouncing Kadyrov’s regime. His YouTube videos got thousands of hits, and soon he received a phone call from Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s right-hand man, widely known in Chechnya by his nickname, Lord. Abdurakhmanov recorded the call and posted the recording online.
Aware that Abdurakhmanov was abroad and had a large following, Lord did not immediately resort to threats. Instead, he promised they could discuss issues openly, and cajoled him into returning to Chechnya to help Kadyrov, whom Lord called the “padishah” or “emperor”.
As he failed to make headway, Lord got angrier, demanding to know Abdurakhmanov’s address in Poland. He later publicly declared “blood revenge” on the blogger. Later, Abdurakhmanov’s family back in Chechnya were filmed at the village mosque denouncing their relative, in footage that was posted online. “If they want to, let them kill him or do what they want with him. We have been gathered here today to announce that we no longer accept responsibility for him,” said one of his relatives, in a recording Abdurakhmanov believes was made under duress.
“I know they’re hunting for me. They’re searching for me, so of course I am taking measures to protect myself,” said Abdurakhmanov on a Skype call from an undisclosed location in Poland. Polish authorities have accepted there is a threat to his life in Russia, and have granted asylum to his wife and three children. But they have rejected his claim on national security grounds. The evidence that motivated the decision is classified.
“I can’t defend myself from the accusations because I don’t know what I’m being accused of. I have not been questioned at all; there has not been a single discussion with the authorities,” he said, declining to give his location, except to say he was moving frequently. He said he was now in hiding both from Chechen assassins and from Polish authorities, certain that if they detain him and deport him to Russia, he will be killed.
It appears possible that European asylum authorities are relying on Russian accusations of terrorist leanings when denying asylum applications. It is true that in recent years, hundreds of Chechens became radicalised, with some joining Islamic State and even taking senior positions in the group. It is also true that Chechen and Russian authorities have used accusations of radical Islamism as a pretext to arrest or torture people.
“It is a very complicated situation, but we end up with cases of people who very clearly need asylum and are being rejected,” said Sokirianskaya.
Tsatieva, ex-wife of Khangoshvili, hopes that his murder may finally prompt German authorities to positively assess her asylum claim and those of her children. “It’s a very difficult time for me and the children. We are afraid of what may happen next, and there is still no decision regarding our asylum in Germany.”
Książak, who has treated Chechen and other victims of torture for more than two decades, said removing the threat of deportation from traumatised refugees was the best way to help them recover and integrate. “When protection to torture survivors is finally granted, the fears that haunted them slowly dissolve. Trust and family relations improve and social integration follows. But if they live in constant fear it is very hard for them to recover.”
Chechnya’s troubled history.
Chechnya’s history over the past three decades has been both tragic and tangled, as the original fight for independence from Russia in the 1990s fragmented.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power in Russia in 1999, he launched the second Chechen war with a ruthless air campaign. Russia won back control of the region but at a terrible human cost.
The Kremlin put Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel who switched sides, in charge of the region. After he was killed in 2004, his son Ramzan took over and has run Chechnya ever since, rebuilding the region with Moscow’s roubles and given free rein to establish a legal grey zone where his word is law and a cult of personality has flourished.
The insurgency split, with those in favour of a secular independent Chechnya mostly moving to Europe and the remaining rebels becoming more Islamist and using terrorist methods. By 2007, Chechen fighters had rebranded their movement as a “Caucasus emirate”, seeking to adopt sharia law across the whole region and later allying with Islamic State. Kadyrov has used this to paint all opposition to him as radical Islamist.
As the years have gone by, his security forces have acted with ever more impunity against his real and perceived enemies.
Grozny today is unrecognisable from the devastated shell of a city left after the two wars: shiny new high-rises are lit with neon and the central thoroughfare is called Putin Avenue. Portraits of Kadyrov and his slain father adorn many buildings, and a parade of western celebrities have visited and professed their admiration for Kadyrov. But behind the façade, an atmosphere of fear prevails.
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