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Russia Profile
August 13, 2009
Chechnya: Wilder, Deadlier and Out of Control
As Ramzan Kadyrov’s Security Forces Look Increasingly Lawless, Human Rights Groups Take Hope in Yunnus-bek Yevkurov’s Return to Work
By Roland Oliphant

On Tuesday, August 11, the bodies of Zerema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov were found in the trunk of their car in the factory district of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. They had both been shot. Marks on Sadulayeva’s body suggest she may also have been raped. The Russian media have widely referred to Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov as “human rights defenders,” a phrase that neatly packages their deaths with that of Natalia Estemirova, murdered in Chechnya on July 15. But apart from a common determination to help others, this is a misleading comparison that brushes over the significance of the crime.

Natalya Estemirova was a human rights defender in every sense of the word. Her professional activities, exposing and publicizing abuses by Russian and Chechen security forces, placed her in near-constant confrontation with the authorities. Her murder may have been shocking, but it was not random. She had made enemies of extremely dangerous people, and when she died there was no doubt, in the minds of many, who was responsible. That’s why her boss, Oleg Orlov, lost no time in accusing Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of having a hand in the crime.

Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov were not “human rights defenders” in that sense. They did not record abuses by the authorities, did not investigate crimes that often the victims themselves were too afraid to talk about, and they were not an essential point of contact for foreign journalists trying to meet ordinary people Chechnya. They ran a humanitarian organization, Save the Generation, with the very narrow mandate of helping handicapped people, particularly children injured by landmines. In the words of Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, “they were not confronting the authorities.” And no one can single out an obvious suspect.

If anything, this makes these latest murders more terrifying. Whoever killed Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov certainly acted as if they were working for the authorities. The only witness to the abduction said that four of the six kidnappers were wearing camouflage uniforms, and even left a contact telephone number ­ which did not work when worried colleagues later tried to call it. But there is no obvious motive. In this case, Kadyrov’s own guesses ­ that the killing may have had “something to do with a blood feud,” or Dzhabrailov’s past association with insurgents ­ are as good as anyone’s.

But regardless of who carried out the killings, or for what reason, it shows that “the climate in Chechnya for activists is absolutely intolerable,” said Lokshina. “The situation is certainly out of Russia’s control, and if Kadyrov didn’t order this, then it is out of his control too,” she said.

In the past Kadyrov has earned glowing praise from the federal center for his perceived success in stamping-out the last remains of the separatist insurgency in the republic. But there has been a surge in violence in Chechnya in recent months, including a suicide bombing in the center of Grozny. Senior figures in the Russian security community are rumored to be particularly unhappy with the Kremlin’s decision in April to cave into Kadyrov’s lobbying to end the counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information in Moscow, has argued that the fight between Kadyrov and the rebels is actually intensifying as the Chechen president seeks to prove to the Kremlin that he can indeed deliver peace. And it is this renewed fight that has made things so dangerous for charity workers. “The radical worsening of the environment has to do with the increase of lawless, vicious counter-terrorism operations, in response to the rise of the insurgency,” said Lokshina.

Kadyrov called the double murder “a cruel crime and a challenge to the authorities.” But given that Dzhbrailov had served four years in prison for aiding the insurgency, it is natural to wonder whether he and his wife were victims of one of the authorities’ own cruelty.

That is speculation, however, and the uncertainty makes it difficult for other charity workers to decide how to react. Memorial, the human rights group organization Estemirova worked for, suspended its operations in Chechnya after her death. Now other NGOs in the North Caucasus will be wondering whether not antagonizing the authorities is any longer a guarantee of safety. “It’s a really horrible thing that happened; it’s unsettling and it’s sad,” said one Chechnya-based NGO worker who wished to remain anonymous, “but until we know why this happened, we can’t come to any conclusions.”

If Kadyrov’s brutal brand of counter-insurgency is both failing and out of control, there is an alternative. Over the border in the republic of Ingushetia, President Yunnus-bek Yevkurov has pursued a strategy of reigning in the excesses of the security services in a bid to win back the trust of the population. This week he returned to work for the first time since he was nearly killed by a suicide bomber in June. “It’s a difficult path; it’s not likely to yield long-term results. But it is the way to go,” said Lokshina. “I profoundly hope that the Kremlin will realize that the model used by Yevkurov is the one that should be used across the North Caucasus.”

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