ST: I'm next on Chechnya's death list
- Sunday Times
May 10, 2009
I'm next on Chechnya's death list
A Chechen clan leader who has seen two brothers shot in the past year claims the republic's president wanted them dead
Mark Franchetti, Moscow
THE muscular young Chechen looked pale and tired as he opened a steel reinforced door to his flat on the outskirts of Moscow.
After the murders of two of his brothers in the past year, Isa Yamadayev, 34, believes he is next on a death-list drawn up by powerful enemies of his family.
Ever mindful of the danger, Yamadayev remains largely indoors with the blinds down, a gun close by and several armed bodyguards next door.
As we sipped tea, he accused Ramzan Kadyrov, the 32-year-old president of Chechnya, of having wanted his brothers dead because they refused to bow to his will. Calmly, he predicted his own death at the hands of the same killers and also swore vengeance.
"I've no doubt that Kadyrov is behind all this," Yamadayev told me in a recent interview. "He won't stop until we're all dead because he fears us. His people will come after me, too. Let them come. I'm ready. They will get what they deserve.
"Even if we're all killed, we are a big clan. Our deaths will not go unpunished. The day will come when Kadyrov will face justice for what he has done. He'll end up in jail."
The Yamadayevs were once one of Chechnya's most powerful families. But since opposing Kadyrov, who runs the tiny republic with an iron fist, they have been branded criminals by the president.
Last September Ruslan Yamadayev, 46, the eldest of six brothers and a former member of the Russian parliament, was gunned down in his Mercedes-Benz at traffic lights outside the British embassy in Moscow.
In March Sulim Yamadayev, 35, was killed in Dubai, where he had gone into hiding after Kadyrov had ordered his arrest. He was shot several times as he walked with two guards to his BMW in the underground car park of the luxury apartment block where he lived.
Police in Dubai have accused Adam Delimkhanov, a cousin of Kadyrov and MP for Chechnya in the Russian parliament, of masterminding the assassination. According to testimony from a suspect held in Dubai, Delimkhanov's guards gave him the murder weapon a gold-plated Russian-made Makarov pistol that was discarded after it had been used.
Last month Interpol issued arrest warrants for Delimkhanov and several other Chechens for the murder. They are unlikely to face trial, however. As an MP, Delimkhanov enjoys immunity from prosecution in Russia and the Russian constitution bars its nationals from being extradited.
Both Kadyrov and Delimkhanov have denied any link to the killing.
"Sulim was warned several times," recalled Isa, his younger brother. "He was told to leave Russia and he lay low for a while. We were told that Kadyrov's people had sent a death squad to take him out."
In an interview shortly after Ruslan Yamadayev was killed in Moscow, Sulim foretold his own murder by a hit squad. He was the sixth opponent of Kadyrov to die violently in quick succession. The Chechen leader, who is backed by the Kremlin, has denied any connection with the murders and dismisses the allegations against him as propaganda.
Few stories better illustrate the treacherous and brutal nature of the war in Chechnya than the turbulent fortunes of the Yamadayev and Kadyrov clans. Like the war itself, it is a tale of shifting alliances, deadly intrigue and bloody score-settling.
When Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, sent troops into Chechnya in late 1994 to crush its drive for independence, Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan's father, and the Yamadayev brothers were on the same side.
During the 20-month war, Akhmad Kadyrov called on Chechens to kill as many Russians as possible and the Yamadayev brothers became rebel field commanders.
In 1999 Vladimir Putin, then a newly appointed prime minister, sent troops back into Chechnya. This time the Yamadayevs and the Kadyrovs backed the Kremlin against Islamic extremists led by Shamil Basayev, the rebel commander.
Dzhabrail Yamadayev, commander of the Vostok Battalion, a special forces unit run by Russian military intelligence, became the first of the brothers to die in March 2003 when a bomb was placed under a couch where he was sleeping. Sulim, whose face had been deeply scarred by an earlier explosion, succeeded him.
When Akhmad Kadyrov became president of Chechnya with Putin's backing, he put his young son Ramzan in charge of a powerful militia assigned to eliminate Islamic rebels.
A boxer with a violent streak who kept a pet tiger at his home, Ramzan Kadyrov was soon being condemned by human rights groups, which alleged that his men had carried out abductions, torture and executions. Yamadayev's men were accused of the same.
President Kadyrov was killed in 2004 by a bomb in a stadium where he was attending a military parade. For a while, Sulim Yamadayev and Ramzan Kadyrov claimed to be on the same side, posing for photographs together and attending each other's birthday celebrations. But the show of unity did not last long.
Putin backed Kadyrov, first as prime minister and then as president. As he consolidated his hold on power, his attempts to bring Yamadayev's supporters under his control met with fierce resistance. Tension between the two sides grew as each clan was backed by rival factions in Moscow. Putin awarded both men the title Hero of Russia.
The rivalry escalated a year ago when a convoy led by Badrudi, another of the Yamadayev brothers, collided with a 50-car motorcade accompanying the Chechen president. A bloodbath was averted only when Kadyrov walked up to Badrudi Yamadayev and gave him a bear hug. But two hours later the president dispatched hundreds of troops to the Yamadayevs' base, demanding that Badrudi be handed over. Two of his men were killed and he has been in hiding ever since.
Chechnya issued arrest warrants for both Badrudi and Sulim Yamadayev, not that this stopped the latter from fighting with his men alongside the Russians in last summer's war in Georgia. But last year, in a victory for Kadyrov, Vostok was disbanded. Branded a criminal by Kadyrov, despite being a Hero of Russia, Sulim also went into hiding, fleeing to Dubai.
In March, a few days after Sulim was killed, Kadyrov claimed Sulim had been part of the plot to blow up his father. He alleged that Sulim had tried to kill him as well by poisoning a lake at his home a lavish fortress where he keeps a private zoo and a garage that contains dozens of luxury cars.
In an ominous sign for Isa Yamadayev in Moscow, Kadyrov branded him "a criminal, like his brother".
As Isa saw me out of his flat, limping heavily from an old gunshot wound, he spoke in hushed tones so as to avoid being overheard by his four small children, who were playing nearby. In Soviet times, he said, a powerful Chechen had killed a close Yamadayev relative. The man was caught and ended up serving 14 years.
"When he came out, he was killed by our clan in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan," said Isa.
"That's how Chechnya works it's about family honour. People don't forget. It's against the law, so naturally I wouldn't encourage anyone to act in this way against a president backed by the Kremlin. But through the rule of law, justice will be done.
"This is far from over."
December 1994: Yamadayev and Kadyrov clans are closely allied, fighting Russians during the first Chechen war
August 1996: Russia is forced to withdraw
August 1999: Russia sends troops back to Chechnya. Yamadayevs and Kadyrovs switch sides, support Moscow
May 2004: President Akhmad Kadyrov assassinated. His son blames Yamadayevs
February 2007: Ramzan Kadyrov becomes president
April 2008: Presidential motorcade in clash with Badrudi Yamadayev's militia. Two later die in shootout
September 2008: Ruslan Yamadayev gunned down in Moscow
March 2009: Sulim Yamadayev assassinated in Dubai