‘I am the moderator’ A former separatist spoke out against the abuse of an opposition activist in Chechnya. Then Chechen law enforcement arrested his relatives.
On September 10, former Chechen separatist commander Akhmed Zakayev told the media that his relatives were kidnapped and detained in Russia’s Chechnya, after he spoke out against the humiliation of a teenager involved in running the opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT. The Chechen authorities have rejected Zakayev’s allegations, claiming that his family members decided to disown him voluntarily.
The Telegram channel 1ADAT was created at the beginning of March — it positions itself as a “popular movement” helping residents of Chechnya who have suffered abuse at the hand of law enforcement officials. It calls its subscribers “fighters against the Ramzan Kadyrov Regime.” 1ADAT disseminates information about the abduction of Kadyrov’s opponents by law enforcement agents, as well as about the secret prisons where these detainees are held. At the end of May, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that the Chechen authorities had “authorized a hunt” for the channel’s administrators and subscribers; at the same time, former employees of the state-run channel Grozny TV received influential government positions and were tasked with conducting an “information war” against 1ADAT.
1ADAT gained widespread public attention at the beginning of September, after a video began circulating on social networks, in which one of its moderators can be seen kneeling down, naked, and apologizing for his actions. At the end of the video he says that he’s prepared to punish himself and sits down on a glass bottle. Novaya Gazeta identifies the man in the video as 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkayev. His associates have expressed confidence that he was kidnapped by the security forces. The human rights organization Memorial has filed a complaint about torture with the relevant law enforcement agencies.
Zakayev reported the arrest of his two brothers and two sisters in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan on the evening of September 10. This information came to him from a distant relative, who, according to Zakayev, was an eyewitness to the arrests — law enforcement agents told her that they were taking the detainees to the Chechen capital, Grozny. A source later told the BBC Russian Service that Zakayev’s relatives had returned home — after Chechen Parliamentary Speaker Magomed Daudov had a conversation with them.
Zakayev linked the arrests to a video statement that he posted online in support of the opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT, in which he condemns the torture and humiliation of one of its moderators. In the video, Zakayev, speaking figuratively, refers to himself as the channel’s moderator: “I only found out about the existence of this channel yesterday, but today I am telling you: I am the moderator of this channel. I’m its admin. Anyone who considers himself a Chechen is a member of this group.” In response, Daudov said that Zakayev “will be held responsible” for the channel.
Soon after Zakayev reported the abductions, the state-controlled news agency Grozny-Inform published an audio recording of an alleged conversation involving Zakayev’s brother, Ali. Speaking with a journalist, he says that he heard the news about him and his relatives getting kidnapped from the media and that he wasn’t aware of his brother’s statement. On the morning of September 11, the pro-government Instagram account @eldit_net said that Zakayev’s family members were holding a meeting in his home village, to “publicly condemn the national-traitor hiding in England.”
That same morning, 1ADAT reported a similar incident involving Minkail Malizayev — a Chechen blogger living in Germany, who is critical of Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. After he came out in support of 1ADAT, his relatives were also kidnapped, the Telegram channel said. Moreover, 1ADAT reported that Malizayev’s relatives were being held together with Zakayev’s family members.
In recent years, there have been repeated reports of the Chechen authorities attempting to put pressure on “inconvenient” bloggers and critics by using their relatives who still live in Chechnya against them. Most often, law enforcement officers take their family members away to an unknown location, after which state-controlled media publishes videos in which the relatives condemn and disown their family member who criticized the Chechen authorities. Afterwards, the detained relatives are released. Kadyrov’s critics have also reported receiving threats about bad things happening to their family members living in Chechnya, if they choose to continue publicly opposing the regime.
Translation by Eilish Hart