Behind Chechnya’s executions Journalists publish revelations from a former police officer who says he guarded prisoners before they were killed
On Monday, March 15, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a report by journalist Elena Milashina, titled “I Served in the Chechen Police and Didn’t Want to Kill People.” The story features revelations from Suleiman Gezmakhmaev, a former officer in Chechnya’s Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment, about how his unit executed several locals in early 2017. He says he helped arrest and interrogate some of these people, but he denies participating in their torture and murder. Before publishing Gezmakhmaev’s story, Novaya Gazeta and its partners helped him and his family flee Russia. In the article, Milashina describes in detail how she connected with Gezmakhmaev, what he did in the Chechen police, how the executions took place, and what role high-ranking police officials allegedly played in the killings. Meduza summarizes the report below.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of these killings
According to Novaya Gazeta, police in Chechnya arrested at least 109 people in special operations in December 2016 and January 2017. Local television reports described the suspects as terrorists and members of the “criminal underground.” In late January, officials allegedly executed 27 detainees, shooting two and strangling the others. Most of those who survived detention were later sentenced to different terms (including probation) for possession of illegal weapons. Another four of these people, say Novaya Gazeta’s sources, were killed in Chechnya around the same time as part of the republic’s deadly discrimination campaign against the LGBT+ community.
Novaya Gazeta first reported these murders back in July 2017, a few months after the publication gave Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee the names of 31 suspected victims and requested a formal inquiry.
The probe lasted nearly a year. Based on its results, federal investigators confirmed the deaths of four people on Novaya Gazeta’s list and declared another three missing. Officials supposedly found another two men alive and even presented them to visiting Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova (though Novaya Gazeta insists that these were only the murdered victims’ relatives). Investigators concluded that the remaining 18 people on the list fled to Syria where they joined terrorist groups. In March 2018, the agency formally declined to launch a full criminal investigation based on Novaya Gazeta’s findings. From the start, senior officials in Chechnya have denied the allegations.
The newspaper continues to investigate the executions, however. On February 15, 2021, Novaya Gazeta published a new report about how at least some of the men arrested in Chechnya in December 2016 and January 2017 were forced on camera to swear allegiance to the “Islamic State” terrorist group and then compelled to renounce this oath (also on camera). Novaya Gazeta believes this footage was staged in order to accuse the detainees of terrorism. In that same February 2021 article, the newspaper promised to publish the testimony of a former Chechen police officer about the extrajudicial killings.
How Novaya Gazeta found a witness to these extrajudicial killings
Journalist Elena Milashina says she received a letter in September 2017 through her friend Musa Lomaev from a Chechen man who’d fled Russia and was now seeking asylum in Germany. In the letter, the man described the torture and murder of detainees in January 2017 at a base for the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment. Milashina requested a meeting with the letter’s author, and he agreed, to her surprise. They first met in Hamburg in September 2017. That’s how Milashina became acquainted with Suleiman Gezmakhmaev.
In April 2017, together with his wife and their two children, Gezmakhmaev fled Chechnya for the European Union through Belarus. By that time, his former colleagues in the police were looking for him. The family arrived first in Poland and then reached Germany. In June 2017, German migration officials interviewed Gezmakhmaev about his reasons for leaving Russia. He described the executions in Chechnya but declined to name the officials responsible, worried that his testimony could reach Russian officials and become a problem if he was denied asylum and forced to return to Russia. Ultimately, Germany did reject his asylum application on the technicality that he needed to apply in Poland, where he and his family first entered the EU. (The Gezmakhmaevs moved on from Poland because it’s generally much harder to get asylum there.)
Novaya Gazeta agreed to help them find refuge somewhere else, but this meant the family needed first to return to Russia.
For a year and a half, Gezmakhmaev and his family did just that, living secretly in a shelter provided by human rights activists, never leaving their home, never communicating with relatives, and living entirely without the Internet. Throughout this time, lawyers at the Committee Against Torture recorded hours of video interviews with Gezmakhmaev. Novaya Gazeta emphasizes that he provided testimony about the killings not in exchange for asylum abroad but because “this terrible crime, in which he was also involved, weighed on him.”
Serving in the Chechen police
Suleiman Gezmakhmaev was born in 1989 in the Chechen village of Achkhoy-Martan, about 30 miles southwest of Grozny. After grade school, he started working and never went to college. In 2011, he joined the police force. “The army was out of reach for Chechens. Construction, driving a taxi, or the police — those were the options,” he says. Gezmakhmaev became a sniper in a police unit named after Akhmat Kadyrov and took part in so-called “counterterrorist operations” (KTOs).
In the service, Gezmakhmaev says he learned that Chechen police finish off wounded insurgents in the field. “Nobody in Chechnya needs a real, breathing insurgent — under torture, they can say too much,” he explained. Officers unofficially collected their weapons and used them to provoke extensions of their counterterrorist operations by firing at police checkpoints or military units. Gezmakhmaev says law enforcement rely on KTOs for funding and performance indicators. The police even killed innocent bystanders, sometimes during an actual counterterrorist operation, though it’s easier “simply to kidnap someone and hold him in a basement until his beard grows out, before taking him into the forest dressed as an insurgent and eliminating him,” explains Gezmakhmaev.
In 2012, Gezmakhmaev witnessed one of these killings firsthand. During a routine KTO, one of his fellow officers was on night duty when he heard a man scream. The next morning, there was the sound of gunshots. Gezmakhmaev and several other officers were later informed that an insurgent had been killed after resisting the police, but Gezmakhmaev says he recognized the dead man: “It was the same guy they brought to our basement a month ago. He was very pale and completely shaggy.” After this incident, Gezmakhmaev says he started avoiding KTO assignments.
Legally, the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Patrol Service Regiment lacks the authority to arrest people and hold them in detainment on the unit’s own grounds, but officers did it anyway, donning the insignia of other police branches. “All the men in the regiment have a whole set of bars and stripes from different divisions, including the special forces, the riot police, Russia’s Interior Ministry, and their own unit,” Gezmakhmaev told Novaya Gazeta. While he was in the service, Gezmakhmaev says the regiment carried out mass arrests just twice before January 2017: once in 2015 (when no one was killed) and again in 2016 (when the police allegedly beat at least two prisoners to death).
The arrests in January 2017
In early January 2017, Gezmakhmaev’s regiment was ordered to round up persons suspected of planning an attack against the 42nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division military outpost on the outskirts of the Chechen city of Shali. Officials soon brought in at least 56 people, most of whom were jailed in the police unit’s gym basement. The regiment’s officers, along with “Terek” special forces troops and police from other districts, beat the detainees with rubber hoses and clubs, torturing them with electricity and lowering them into barrels of water. The torture stopped only when a prisoner confessed or died.
Beginning on January 14, Gezmakhmaev was assigned to guard the prisoners being held in the gym basement. Together with another officer, his friend Suleiman Saraliev, he says they used to bring the detainees to the shower when possible and sneak them soap. They’d also let the men pray and asked the regiment’s cafeteria workers for extra food. Rationed just one or two pieces of bread a day, plus maybe a cracker, the prisoners were deliberately starved and kept weak. “They couldn’t walk and would collapse,” recalls Gezmakhmaev, who says his conversations with the detainees convinced him that they were innocent.
There were more than a dozen supposed “insurgent commanders” among the prisoners, all but one of whom ended up dead. Gezmakhmaev says he personally questioned “amir” Makhma Muskiev, who later wept under torture and confessed to every crime his tormentors suggested. Adam Dasaev, another supposed commander, “screamed at night like an insane person.” The police also arrested his cousin, Imran Dasaev, jailing him in the basement with a bullet wound in his leg, which they refused to treat, to ensure gangrene.
According to Gezmakhmaev, Dasaev said his leg injury happened when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accidentally shot him. (Multiple other sources confirmed this account to Novaya Gazeta.)
How the prisoners were executed
In late January, officers forced the 13 “amirs” to sign declarations that they wouldn’t leave the region and then moved them to another basement on the compound. As Novaya Gazeta reported previously, the men were lined up against the walls of a recreation room where Shalinsky District Police Chief Tamerlan Musaev and Akhmat Kadyrov Regiment Commander Aslan Iraskhanov were playing table tennis. The prisoners were then taken to a neighboring room, where Turpal-Ali Ibragimov, the Shali district administration's chief of staff, was waiting for them. Behind the door into the room, Gezmakhmaev says he and fellow officer Suleiman Saraliev saw dead bodies. Saraliev was then ordered to bring in Makhma Muskiev. When Gezmakhmaev realized that he was next in line to serve as executioner, he excused himself from duty and returned to the barracks.
The next morning, Saraliev described what had happened the previous night: first, Ibragimov shot one or two of the “amirs,” before Commander Iraskhanov decided that it would be better to kill the prisoners without staining the floor and walls with blood. In the end, Ibragimov’s guards strangled the remaining prisoners with exercise ropes. Saraliev said he was forced to help kill Muskiev.
How things ended for Suleiman Saraliev
Saraliev had only been with the Akhmat Kadyrov Police Regiment for a few months when he was ordered to take part in the January 2015 executions. The experience changed him, recalls Gezmakhmaev, who says his friend started suffering from insomnia and nightmares about Makhma Muskiev. He began taking Lyrica (an anticonvulsant popular among drug addicts in Chechnya) and worrying that Muskiev’s relatives might seek revenge against him. Gezmakhmaev says Saraliev ultimately decided to talk about the killings to his friend who worked either in the district attorney’s office or the investigative committee.
The meeting took place in early March 2017. Saraliev’s friend listened to his story and asked for a week to confer with his supervisors, but that was the last he heard of him. Gezmakhmaev then went on sick leave and didn’t see Saraliev again. After another week, he got a phone call from Saraliev, who was now staying with a cousin. “Don’t believe what they’re saying about me,” he asked Gezmakhmaev. Then Saraliev stopped answering his phone. Gezmakhmaev learned later that “Terek” special forces commander Abuzaid Vismuradov (reportedly one of Ramzan Kadyrov’s childhood friends) had visited the regiment accompanied by “some junkie” who claimed that Saraliev is gay.
Afterward, says Gezmakhmaev, Vismuradov summoned Saraliev’s cousin to the regiment’s barracks and asked him plainly: “Are you going to kill him or should we do it ourselves?” In its report, Novaya Gazeta doesn’t clarify who killed Suleiman Saraliev, but we know he was buried the very next day, “almost in secret,” without so much as a funeral. Gezmakhmaev and his family left Chechnya soon thereafter.
The state investigator who reviewed Novaya Gazeta’s police report concluded that Saraliev is still alive “but his location is unknown.” Novaya Gazeta, meanwhile, has photographs of his grave.
The men who ordered the executions
Here’s what Suleiman Gezmakhmaev wrote in his letter, which Elena Milashina read before she ever met him in Germany:
“I also want to note that Abuzaid Vismuradov — the [“Terek”] special forces commander and “Akhmat” sports club president, nicknamed “Patriot” — is friends with [Akhmat Kadyrov Police Regiment commander] Aslan Iriskhanov and rarely visits our regiment. At that time, for about three weeks, beginning on January 12 [in 2017] [...] Vismuradov came by almost every day. [...] I doubt Iriskhanov would have dared to execute prisoners without direct orders from above, since Vismuradov was aware of all that was happening. It was clear that Vismuradov was in charge of everything, from the arrests to the executions. Also, Vismuradov couldn’t have ordered the killings without approval from Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock