‘Nobody canceled blood feuds’ The relatives of Chechen dissidents are being kidnapped — both in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia
In the final weeks of 2021, at least six Chechen oppositionists reported that their relatives had gone missing. All of these opposition figures live outside of Chechnya and have condemned regional head Ramzan Kadyrov and his cronies for human rights abuses. Several of them have faced threats in the past or even survived assassination attempts. Though their family members living in Chechnya have come under pressure before, they are now being abducted en masse — and not only in Chechnya, but also in other parts of Russia. Though some have been released, many remain missing at the time of this writing. For Meduza, journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky spoke with three Chechen dissidents whose relatives were targeted in the latest wave of repression.
Opposition blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov received political asylum in Sweden in October 2021. On December 21–22, he learned that nine of relatives in Chechnya had disappeared, he told Meduza. One of them, his cousin, was beaten up. Six others, who were subsequently released, weren’t subjected to any violence, but had their passports confiscated — some of them had their cell phones taken away, too. Abdurakhmanov told Meduza that he still doesn’t know who detained his relatives, but he was informed that four of them were held at a police station in Argun, a town in the Chechen Republic.
According to the blogger, two days after the first round of disappearances — on the morning of December 24 — local police officers showed up at the home of his wife’s mother and sisters in the city of Astrakhan. Under the pretext of investigating a criminal case, the officers took the blogger’s sister-in-law, Asiyat Aybazova, to Astrakhan’s Kirovsky Police Station. There, Aybazova was allegedly handed over to three men in civilian clothes, who put her in a car with Chechen plates and drove off to an unknown location. Around this time, Abdurakhmanov’s mother-in-law went missing from her Astrakhan home. The whereabouts of both Asiyat Aybazova and her mother are still unknown. Relatives tried to call Aybazova’s phone, but the number had been disconnected.
The Interior Ministry’s branch for the Astrakhan region didn’t respond to Meduza’s official request for comment on the arrest of Asiyat Aybazova and the legal grounds for her detention.
Abdurakhmanov raised the alarm about threats against his family members back in September, when armed men delivered a warning about a blood feud to his relatives in Starye Atagi (a rural town in Chechnya). Abdurakhmanov connected the threats to the failed assassination attempts on him and his brother in February 2020 and March 2021, respectively. Earlier, in April 2019, the blogger’s close relatives publicly disowned him, declaring that they would not seek revenge in the event of his death. According to Ruslan Kutayev, a well-known Chechen public figure, Abdurakhmanov’s family members disowned him under pressure from the authorities.
On December 23, 2021, Tumso Abdurakhmanov published a screenshot of an anonymous Telegram message threatening violence against his kidnapped family members unless he apologizes to Ramzan Kadyrov and stops releasing opposition videos. The blogger surmises that his released relatives will be forced to record videos condemning him.
The WhatsApp account that sent Abdurakhmanov the anonymous threats has a profile picture of a young man with a machine gun standing in front of a poster of Akhmat Kadyrov (the former Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov’s father). The young man in the photo is wearing a black uniform with a SOBR patch.
A search for this image leads to the VKontakte profile of one Turpal Saralapov (whose account has since been set to private). Among Saralapov’s photos are snapshots of him in the company of Abuzayed Vismuradov, the commander of SOBR “Terek” — Chechnya’s Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) of the Russian National Guard. The United States imposed sanctions on both Vismuradov and Terek unit in May 2019 for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Chechnya.
What’s more, Turpal-Ali Saralapov has a verified profile on the website profi.ru (an online marketplace for freelancers and professionals), offering his services as a security guard. This profile includes photos from an Instagram account registered to the same phone number as Saralapov’s VKontakte profile. The number that sent Tumso Abdurakhmanov the anonymous threats has since been disconnected.
Mansur Sadulayev was once part of the armed underground in Chechnya. After his arrest in 2009, Sadulayev told Meduza, he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He served two years in prison and then fled to Austria. There, he became one of the founders of the human rights association Vayfond, which helps Chechen émigrés in Europe. In particular, Vayfond has successfully lobbied for the removal of several dozen people from Interpol’s wanted list and helped prevent their deportation to Russia.
Sadulayev cut off all communication with people living in Chechnya after he started engaging in public activities in late 2015, he told Meduza. He found out about the recent abduction of three of his cousins (on his mother’s side) from social media. “I was surprised because I haven’t made any video messages for over a year, and there was no such pressure even at the very height of my activity,” Sadulayev said, referring to videos critical of the Chechen authorities posted on Vayfond’s YouTube channel.
“According to Chechen traditions, relatives on the mother’s side aren’t accountable for a person. But [in this case] there’s no tradition, no Islam, no law. Yes, it’s terrible, but it’s not new for us,” he explained. “They’re continuing to do what they started twenty years ago. Only back then they took the relatives of those who fought against Russia hostage, and today they’ve switched to people who are engaged in information warfare.”
According to Sadulayev, he also received anonymous messages demanding that he stop criticizing Ramzan Kadyrov. “They say that my relatives are alright, nobody laid a finger on them, but be quiet so that there won’t be problems in the future,” he told Meduza.
The human rights activist
In 2017, Abubakar Yangulbayev’s brother was tortured at the Russian Interior Ministry’s Grozny branch. Yangulbayev turned to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture for help, and later took a job there as a lawyer. Having become a professional human rights defender, Yangulbayev left Chechnya, but continued to work in the Russian North Caucasus.
In December 2021, Yangulbayev started to have trouble getting in touch with his relatives — he learned that their homes were empty, and many of them couldn’t be reached online or by phone. According to Yangulbayev’s count, around 40 of his family members have gone missing in total. However, he hasn’t received a single demand or threat in connection with their disappearances. Yangulbayev reported the apparent kidnappings to the Russian Investigative Committee, but has yet to receive a response.
“In modern-day Russia it’s dangerous to work for the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. And in Chechnya, this risk increases many times over,” Yangulbayev told Meduza. “There’s no one specific legal field in the republic. There’s traditions, Sharia [law], Russian legislation, and Kadyrov’s notions, and mostly the latter at that.”
When a family member was kidnapped during the Chechen wars, you could at least appeal to law enforcement agencies to launch a criminal case, Yangulbayev said. “But now, if you write such an application you must leave Chechnya, otherwise you will also be subjected to the same unofficial punishments, persecution, and torture. Fighting for human rights is prohibited in Chechnya,” the activist underscored.
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In recent weeks, opposition blogger Khasan Khalitov (who lives in Turkey), blogger Minkail Malizayev (who lives in Germany), and Human Rights Center Ichkeria director Aslan Artsuyev also reported that their relatives had been kidnapped.
During his annual press conference on December 26, the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov accused bloggers of spreading false rumors and unconfirmed reports about abudctions. Kadyrov’s comment quickly went from denial to threats:
“They say that women were kidnapped, relatives. I asked the Rosgvardiya [Russia’s National Guard], the Interior Ministry, the FSB — they have no such information. [...] They must understand: if they have affected the honor of my family, mother, sisters, wife, daughters, I swear by Allah almighty I will go to any court, to a tribunal, I won’t let this person be. [...] The fact that they threaten those who leave the republic for Turkey [or] Germany with their families is a fact. [...] This is a war. They are terrorists. And those who support terrorism, who cannot control their children, should be held accountable. Nobody has canceled blood feuds here, nobody has canceled honor and dignity.”
“Kadyrov’s explanation that we’ve infringed upon the honor of his women is complete nonsense,” blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov said, commenting on the Chechen leader’s statements at the press conference. “The only person who openly undermined the honor of Kadyrov’s relatives was Mamikhan Umarov, who lived in Austria [...] But he was killed. Neither I, nor Mansur Sadulayev, nor [Abubakar] Yangulbayev who, in fact, simply conducts human rights activities, have done this.”
“Kadyrov, being the head of an entire region of the Russian Federation, forgets that blood feuds are prohibited in [this] country,” said Abubakar Yangulbayev. “There’s no longer collective responsibility in Russia, just as there’s no such thing all around the world.”
Asked whether he intends to continue his human rights work following the disappearance of his relatives, Yangulbayev replied: “Of course. The people who have turned to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture because of a struggle for their rights have suffered the same consequences, their relatives were detained in the same way. I’ve worked with these issues, helped [these people], supported them in similar situations, and now, when it has touched me personally, am I supposed to give up? No, of course not.”
On December 28, officers from the Chechen branches of Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center (Center E) and Investigative Committee raided Abubakar Yangulbayev’s home in the city of Pyatigorsk (Stavropol Krai). After the search, Yangulbayev was taken to a police station, where he was questioned for three hours in connection with a criminal case opened against the opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT on charges of justifying terrorism. An investigator from Chechnya claimed to have received information that Yangulbayev created content for this channel. The human rights defender denies these allegations. Yangulbayev told Meduza that law enforcement officers didn’t make threats or use force against him during the raid or the interrogation. They did, however, confiscate his laptop and cell phone.
The Telegram channel 1ADAT was created in early March 2020 — it positions itself as a “popular movement” helping residents of Chechnya who have suffered abuse at the hands 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.
In late May 2020, 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 in early September 2020, after a video of one of its moderators being tortured and humiliated was circulated online. Novaya Gazeta identified the man in the video as 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkayev. His associates maintained that he was kidnapped by the security forces, and the human rights group Memorial reported the torture video to law enforcement agencies. State investigators opened a criminal investigation into Tepsurkayev’s kidnapping in November 2020.
Translation by Eilish Hart