Slain Exile Detailed Chechen Ruler's Cruelty
- By C. J. CHIVERS New York Times
Published: January 31, 2009
Umar S. Israilov saw the men who had come to kill him. They confronted
him in the neighborhood where he lived in hiding in Vienna. He must
have sensed their intentions, because he ran.
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Critic of Chechen President Is Killed in Exile in Vienna (January 14,
Putin Picks Premier Tied to Abuse as Chechen Leader (March 2, 2007)
For more than two years, Mr. Israilov, a Chechen in exile, had
formally accused Russia's government of allowing a macabre pattern of
crimes in Chechnya. Even by the dark norms of violence in the
Caucasus, his accusations were extraordinary.
A rebel fighter turned bodyguard of Ramzan A. Kadyrov, Chechnya's
current president, Mr. Israilov had access to the inner ring of
Chechen power. Mr. Kadyrov's career has been sponsored by Prime
Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who as president lifted him from
obscurity with unwavering Kremlin support.
In written legal complaints, Mr. Israilov described many brutal acts
by Mr. Kadyrov and his subordinates, including executions of illegally
detained men. One executed man, Mr. Israilov said, had been beaten
with a shovel handle by Mr. Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov, now a member
of Russia's Parliament. Another prisoner, the defector said, was
sodomized by a prominent police officer and at Mr. Kadyrov's order put
Mr. Israilov said he and others had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov, who
amused himself by personally giving prisoners electric shocks or
firing pistols at their feet.
Mr. Kadyrov and Mr. Delimkhanov refused to be interviewed for this
article. A spokesman for Mr. Kadyrov released a statement decrying "a
large-scale and purposeful campaign" to discredit Chechnya's president
and government. The campaign, the spokesman said, was the "deeply
conspiratorial initiative of some ideologists of terrorism and an
armed criminal underground."
Since 1994, Russia's wars against nationalist and Islamic separatists
in Chechnya have been fought with sinister conduct by all sides.
Human rights organizations and independent journalists have documented
patterns of abduction, detention, disappearances, collective
punishment, extrajudicial executions and the systematic use of torture
by Russian and Chechen authorities, including Mr. Kadyrov. The
separatists have unapologetically employed terrorist attacks,
including on children.
But the character of Mr. Israilov's allegations was different. He had
been an insider. And with his father, Sharpuddi who says that Mr.
Kadyrov illegally detained him for more than 10 months, and that his
captors tortured victims with a gas torch he filed complaints to
Russian prosecutors and the European Court of Human Rights in 2006 and
The Israilovs' filings, never made public, appear to have been the
first formal allegations based on the actions of Mr. Kadyrov, who has
been celebrated by the Kremlin as a national hero for marginalizing
the insurgency in the Republic of Chechnya since 2004.
Taken together, their accounts offer a window into Russia's
counterinsurgency campaign and the climb to power of Chechens in
Kremlin favor as the separatists' influence waned. They also detail
efforts by Chechnya's government to suppress knowledge of its policies
through official lies, obstruction and witness intimidation.
Since last year, the Israilovs had cooperated with The New York Times,
including by providing copies of sealed court records.
Umar Israilov, 27, was a complicated figure: a participant in a
particularly ugly war, motivated at least in part by revenge. The
Times spent several months evaluating the allegations by him and his
father, examining the charges against the wealth of materials on
Chechen human rights abuses, and interviewing supporting witnesses and
independent investigators who had examined the Israilov case.
In addition, the newspaper obtained corroborating statements from
another government insider and from another victim, who fled Chechnya
but remain in hiding; they said they saw Umar Israilov being tortured.
Almost all of the people who assisted asked for anonymity, saying they
feared reprisal. Ultimately, The Times postponed publication of the
Israilovs' accounts out of concern for the safety of witnesses and
people who helped the investigation, some of whom wanted to relocate.
The threats were palpable. Several of President Kadyrov's critics have
been silenced by violence, including rivals, journalists and former
detainees and their relatives.
Moreover, Mr. Israilov told Austrian authorities last year that an
agent sent from Russia by Mr. Kadyrov had threatened him. Under
questioning by counterterrorism officials, the agent told of his
mission to retrieve the whistle-blower, according to a written summary
of his interrogation, and said Mr. Kadyrov kept a list of 300 enemies
to be killed.
On Jan. 9, after consulting with one of Umar Israilov's legal
advocates, The Times notified Mr. Putin's office that it sought
interviews with Russian officials about these allegations. Mr.
Israilov was prepared to publicize his story.
Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin's spokesman, declined to comment in detail,
saying, "It's not wise to comment on any rumors."
On Jan. 13, Mr. Israilov left his apartment, where he had been
watching his three young children while his pregnant wife was away, to
buy yogurt at a nearby market. Outside, he was confronted by at least
They argued, and one of the men tried to pistol-whip Mr. Israilov,
according to Gerhard Jarosch, a spokesman for Austria's prosecutor.
Mr. Israilov bolted. He still had received no protection. In broad
daylight on a Vienna street, he ran for his life alone.
One of his pursuers opened fire. Mr. Israilov fell, shot in an arm, a
leg and the abdomen, according to Mr. Jarosch. A short while later, he
For Umar Israilov, the pain of Chechnya's wars began early. He was
herding cows in 1995 near his town, Mesker-Yurt, when it was struck by
Russian artillery fire. He hid until the barrage ended. When he
returned home, he found his mother's shrapnel-riddled remains. He was 13.
Mr. Israilov's anger simmered, he said, but when he asked to join the
rebels, they rejected him because of his age. The first war lasted
until 1996, when the separatists won limited independence and the
Russian Army withdrew.
In 1999, during a nearly lawless period of Chechen self-rule, Mr.
Israilov attended a camp at Kurchaloi, his father said. The camp was
in a network of jihadist schools run by Shamil Basayev and Ibn
al-Khattab, rebel commanders whose drift toward terrorism put them
among Russia's most wanted men.
The Russian Army blitzed Chechnya again in 1999. Mr. Israilov assumed
a support role for a guerrilla cell, monitoring Russian troops to help
insurgents avoid ambushes and maintaining an arms cache in a cemetery.
The Russian military suspected him, he said, and troops searched his
relatives' houses repeatedly. Eventually he joined the insurgency full
Mr. Israilov insisted that he had never been in combat or committed
violence. Such claims are common among former fighters; his could not
be independently verified.
Russian prosecutors, in an attempt to have him extradited last year,
claimed he gave insurgents a rifle for an attack on a polling station
and helped rig an explosion against a convoy in which a Russian
soldier was severely wounded.
Austria denied the extradition request, calling the evidence insufficient.
By early 2003, Mr. Israilov, then 22, was living in a dug-out shelter
in the woods. On April 15, he said, he and two other fighters ventured
out to buy food and were arrested by pro-Kremlin Chechens.
An ordeal began. After being beaten for two days, he said, the three
captives were driven to a boxing club in Gudermes and presented to Mr.
Kadyrov. Mr. Israilov's clothes were bloodstained, his body bruised.
His nose had been broken.
Today, Mr. Kadyrov, 32, is Chechnya's most powerful man. Marginally
educated but bristling with intensity and self-confidence, he is not
just the republic's president but also the de facto commander of its
sprawling security forces and arbiter of much of its oil flow. He also
leads an extravagant personality cult and has officially sponsored a
local resurgence in Chechen religion and culture.
As he has seized power, he has borrowed from Stalinism, Sufi Islam and
Chechen nationalism to erode the insurgency, bend a frightened society
to his will and rebuild the republic at a blur.
Along the way, he has been cast by his critics as Russia's most
He has been accused of crimes capital, carnal and municipal, ranging
from murder, torture and kidnapping to cavorting with prostitutes and
exacting kickbacks from government workers to build monuments to his
father and himself.
He has always denied all the allegations. In interviews since 2004
with The Times, he sometimes laughed at them, and while he called
himself "a warrior," he insisted that he fought only for peace.
"I am a Muslim" he said in 2006, when pressed about allegations of
"A good Muslim would never commit a crime," he said. "He will always
be facing God, and he will always do good to people."
He added, as he drove a reporter at high speeds through the Chechen
capital, Grozny, with assault rifles strewn about his car's seats: "I
am an official person. I am not a bandit."
On the day Mr. Israilov met him, Mr. Kadyrov was almost unknown. His
father, Akhmad H. Kadyrov, formerly a leading separatist mufti, had
switched sides in 2000 to ally himself with the Kremlin. The reward
was a plum: an appointment to Chechnya's top administrative post.
Ramzan Kadyrov led his father's bodyguard, a growing militia of former
rebels known as the Presidential Security Service.
The service, a free-wheeling regiment with military, police and
intelligence duties, had no basis in Russian law.
"We've caught some devils," one of their captors said to Mr. Kadyrov
as he stepped from his gym, Mr. Israilov recalled. Mr. Kadyrov laughed
and gave an order: "Take them to the base.
The town of Tsentoroi was once a rebels' redoubt. By 2003 it had
become an informal seat of power for rebels who changed sides.
Mr. Israilov was driven there, he said, and confined with other
detainees in cells outside a weight-lifting center. According to
victims and human rights groups, the weight room was one of several
torture chambers run by pro-Kremlin Chechens.
That day, Mr. Israilov recalled, officers from the F.S.B., Russia's
domestic intelligence service, beat him and tried to force him to
confess to killing at least 17 people. Mr. Israilov said he refused as
Mr. Kadyrov watched.
Mr. Kadyrov finally took over. "Ramzan slapped me in the face once;
then his guards beat me," he said. "Ramzan said, `Stop it,' and asked
me questions. Then he began beating me again."
According to Mr. Israilov, he was beaten a few times a week for three
months, often after being tied to fitness machines. His torturers
wanted information about other rebels, he said.
On one occasion, he said, Mr. Delimkhanov, the Kadyrov associate now
in Russia's lower house of Parliament, beat him with a shovel handle
just before Mr. Kadyrov twice fired a pistol near his feet. On another
occasion, Mr. Israilov said, he was connected to wires and Mr. Kadyrov
administered electric shocks. " `That's the thing,' " he recalled Mr.
Kadyrov saying with a laugh. " `That's the thing.' "
He was also poked in the leg by unknown men with a heated metal rod,
he said, and struck in the lip by a fragment of a ricocheting bullet
fired by another unknown man. (Scars on Mr. Israilov's lip and leg
were visible before he was killed.)
Others faced worse. On his third week in captivity, Mr. Israilov said,
a cellmate, Shamil Gerikhanov, was sodomized with a shovel handle by a
One night he listened, he said, as Aidamir Gushayev, who had organized
a rebel cell's finances, was interrogated by Mr. Kadyrov. The future
president demanded money and grew frustrated. Mr. Israilov heard a
gunshot. For a moment, Mr. Israilov recalled, there was silence, and
then there were bursts of automatic fire. "It sounded like each
bodyguard fired an entire magazine," he said.
Mr. Kadyrov snarled, " `Gazavat,' " he said. The word is Chechen for
holy war. It was also the guards' slang, Mr. Israilov said, for an
area where victims were buried in unmarked grave
When Mr. Israilov was captured, the insurgency had already lost
Grozny, but it remained strong. To defeat it, Russia and Mr. Kadyrov
fought militarily. Simultaneously, Mr. Kadyrov mounted a campaign of
inducements, amnesty offers, threats and violence against rebels'
families to persuade separatists to change sides.
In the summer of 2003, Mr. Israilov said, the guards led him in
shackles to a sauna, where Mr. Kadyrov made an offer: join the
presidential security service and live. The alternative, Mr. Israilov
said, was clear. He accepted.
Mr. Kadyrov gave him a pistol, according to the court complaint, and
Umar Israilov began work in the "kadyrovtsie" the Kadyrovs' troops.
Asked later why he did not turn the pistol against a man he said had
tortured him, Mr. Israilov replied, "Because I wanted to live."
As part of its defense against these allegations, Mr. Kadyrov's office
said last month that it had no record of Mr. Israilov's having served
Mr. Kadyrov. Russian prosecutorial records from Chechnya, however,
show that Mr. Israilov worked in Mr. Kadyrov's guard beginning in late
For about 10 months, Mr. Israilov said, he worked at Tsentoroi. During
this time he saw at least 20 illegally detained people tortured, he
said, with Mr. Kadyrov participating in several sessions. Many victims
were the relatives of the boyeviki, the insurgents.
The sessions Mr. Israilov described aligned with a shift in Russia's
counterinsurgency effort away from mass detentions and neighborhood
sweeps by the Russian Army, to actions by Chechen units against
rebels' families, a form of pinpoint collective punishment.
"Ramzan himself said that the best way to get boyeviki out of the
forest was to do it through relatives," Mr. Israilov said. "It was
basically his slogan."
One day, Mr. Israilov said, he watched the commander who had sodomized
his cellmate, Shamil Gerikhanov, plead with Mr. Kadyrov to order the
victim killed. "Take him and finish him," Mr. Kadyrov said. Mr.
Gerikhanov was driven away and never seen again, Mr. Israilov said;
the rapist, whose first name was Alanbek, was promoted to be a police
commander in Grozny.
In early 2004, Mr. Israilov was transferred to his home village to
lead a police squad, according to his court file.
Mr. Kadyrov's stature in Chechnya was rising fast. His father was
assassinated in May, and Mr. Putin, then president, offered him
condolences in a meeting broadcast on state television a clear
endorsement of his role as Moscow's Chechen strongman.
But as the war evolved from a Russian-Chechen fight to an internecine
struggle, Mr. Israilov's father urged him to desert, saying his job
required violence against his former friends, who would retaliate
against their family. "I told him he could not keep that job without
putting everyone in danger," Sharpuddi Israilov said.
That November, using a counterfeit passport bought with bribe money
collected as a police official, Umar Israilov and his wife, Madina
Sagiyeva, fled to Belarus. There, he said, he traveled to the border
and presented his fake passport and $20 to a Belarussian border guard,
who let them cross to Poland, where they asked for asylum.
In late 2003, two weeks after Umar Israilov deserted, a police
supervisor appeared at a construction company in Grozny where his
father worked. The officer told the elder Israilov that Mr. Kadyrov
had summoned him, and led him to a car where his wife sat in the back.
The police had already searched their apartment, according to court
filings, stolen about $6,000 of their savings and left their three
children, ages 6 to 12, locked inside. The police were looking for
Umar and his weapon.
Sharpuddi Israilov and his wife were driven to Tsentoroi, where they
learned that his son's sister-in-law had also been detained. Within
minutes, Mr. Israilov was knocked down, beaten and dragged to the
weight room, according to him and his wife.
He was handcuffed to a pool table and his legs were lashed to a
fitness machine, Mr. Israilov said. Eight Chechens began to beat, kick
and stomp on him, he said. Three teeth were knocked out.
"They watched until the moment when I was about to pass out; then they
stopped and asked a question," he said. "They did not want a corpse.
They wanted information."
He passed out. When he woke, the men told him they had learned that
his son was in Poland. They attached wires to one toe on each foot, he
said, and began to shock him, pouring water on him to intensify his
pain. "They were laughing, watching my convulsions," he said.
Among the half-dozen others in the room, Mr. Israilov said, was Supyan
Ekiyev, one of Mr. Kadyrov's guards, who was accused of collaborating
in an insurgent attack. He hung by his arms from an exercise machine.
His jaw appeared broken, Sharpuddi Israilov said. His hands and legs
had been burned by open flames. (The next week, his body was found
near Grozny, "heavily distorted by torture," according to Memorial, a
Russian human rights group.)
That night, Mr. Israilov said, Ramzan Kadyrov arrived to torture the
By this time, the insurgency had passed its peak. A run of guerrilla
operations in 2004 had been followed by terrorist attacks, including
the hostage siege at a public school in Beslan, that showed that the
rebels still had sizable forces and considerable resources.
But the terrorist attacks undercut the insurgency's support and
re-energized Russia's efforts to defeat it, expanding Mr. Kadyrov's
Mr. Kadyrov, by then a deputy prime minister, was viewed as Chechnya's
president-in-waiting. He needed only to turn 30, the post's legally
required age. He was 28.
Mr. Kadyrov did not beat the elder Mr. Israilov that night. But
watching Chechnya's most prominent man wander between victims
beating some, shocking others, playing billiards Mr. Israilov felt
disgust. "He just came in to have fun," Mr. Israilov said.
In Chechnya last year, The Times found another person, unrelated to
the Israilovs, who survived detention at the compound at the same
time. The former detainee, clearly terrified, corroborated details of
the treatment, including the torture of another detainee, and
described abductions and the center's grounds in the same manner as
the Israilovs, but did not want to be identified, citing a fear that
relatives would be killed.
Sharpuddi Israilov's allegations are also consistent with those of
another Chechen in hiding, who has asked that his identity remain
undisclosed. The man, who filed a complaint to the European court in
2007, said he was abducted from a bus in November 2004 and detained
for a long period at a base controlled by Mr. Kadyrov, where he was
beaten, burned by a gas flame and subjected to electric shocks,
according to the European Human Rights Advocacy Center, a London-based
organization that helps Russians and Georgians seek justice in Europe.
After Sharpuddi Israilov was detained, he and Umar Israilov said, Mr.
Kadyrov and another Chechen official called Umar in Poland and
demanded his return to Chechnya. They apparently found his Polish
number on his father's phone.
Mr. Kadyrov was enraged, Umar Israilov said, and told him of the
capture of his father and other relatives. "I will kill them all," Mr.
Israilov recalled Mr. Kadyrov saying.
"I will not come back," Mr. Israilov said, and hung u
Umar Israilov's defiance appeared to work. His relatives were not
killed. His sister-in-law and his father's wife were released. (Both
have received asylum in Europe.)
His father's detention, however, dragged on. He was transferred to
Gudermes and held until Oct. 4, 2005, more than 10 months.
Mr. Israilov said he was not tortured again but shared space with as
many as 100 detainees, mostly fighters' relatives or government
fighters accused of minor crimes. Many were beaten or subjected to shocks.
Among those he saw in custody, he said, was Khamad Umarov, the
72-year-old father of Doku Umarov, then a senior rebel commander and
now president of the separatist shadow government.
Khamad Umarov's kidnapping was reported at the time; separatist Web
sites have since reported that he died in custody.
On the day the elder Mr. Israilov was released, he said, he was
dropped in front of his home. He was bearded and scarred, was missing
teeth and had lost about 45 pounds.
In early 2006, according to his complaint to the European Court, a
Russian prosecutor asked him to sign a statement saying that he had
made up his story of detention to cover for time spent away from home
with a mistress.
Mr. Israilov said he threw the paper in the prosecutor's face.
Then he fled with his wife, Shovda Viskhanova, to Norway for asylum.
By that time, Umar Israilov had moved to Austria and received asylum
In interviews, both men said that though they been granted the
possibility of peaceful lives, they wanted to obtain justice and hold
the Russian and Chechen governments accountable. They filed separate
complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in late 2006.
The court, established by the European Convention on Human Rights, has
become a legal venue of last resort for citizens of countries that
have signed the convention, which include Russia. Chechnya, as a
republic of Russia, is covered by Russian conventions and laws.
To hide their locations, the Israilovs provided only a post office box
in a third Western country. Unbeknownst to them, the court sought more
information but could not find them. The case was dropped and expunged
from files, although the Israilov family is resubmitting documents to
have it reinstated.
In August, the Chechen who said he had been sent to Austria by Mr.
Kadyrov found Umar Israilov and asked him to withdraw his complaints
or risk being killed and having his family killed. Mr. Israilov
refused, he and his lawyer said. The Austrian government released the
man and did not protect Mr. Israilov.
In the days since Mr. Israilov's killing, Austrian police and
counterterrorism officers have arrested eight Chechens in the case.
All had received or applied for asylum, the prosecutor's spokesman
said. The suspects were still being questioned and the evidence
reviewed, he said, and their motives were not yet clear.
Umar Israilov, for his part, had all but predicted his fate.
"A guy from our village works as a commander in the kadyrovtsie," he
said at the end of his final interview with a reporter last year. "He
told it to my cousin: that I should be very, very careful, because
Ramzan promises a bounty for me."