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The Trail from a Murder in Vienna Leads to the President of Chechnya

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The New York Times’s C.J. Chivers reports that Austrian prosecutors have linked the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to the assassination of Umar Israilov, a political opponent in Vienna who gave highly damaging evidence against Kadyrov in a court case. Israilov, a former combatant under Kadyrov’s command in the Chechen War, had secured asylum in Vienna after giving dramatic testimony before the European Court of Human Rights that tied Kadyrov personally to instances of torture, kidnapping, and murder.

[T]he Austrian government’s investigators concluded that Mr. Kadyrov ordered that Mr. Israilov be kidnapped, and that the group of Chechens who tried to snatch Mr. Israilov from a Viennese street botched the job. One of them shot Mr. Israilov after he broke free and tried to escape, the investigators found. Their conclusions, pointed and direct but based largely on circumstantial evidence, shift the focus now to Austria’s federal prosecutors’ office, which has been preparing indictments. Three Chechen exiles are in custody in the case: Otto Kaltenbrunner, who is accused of being the local organizer of the crime; Muslim Dadayev, who is accused of monitoring Mr. Israilov’s movements before the crime and driving the getaway car; and Turpal Ali Yesherkayev, who is accused, with a fourth man, of confronting Mr. Israilov as he stepped from a grocery store and then chasing him as he fled. The fourth suspect, Lecha Bogatirov, left Austria and returned to Russia after the killing, investigators found; he is suspected of shooting Mr. Israilov three times with a pistol. Mr. Israilov, who was 27, was a former bodyguard and midlevel official in the paramilitary forces under Mr. Kadyrov’s command.

Chivers previously reported on the details of the police investigation.

Chivers notes the curious stream of assassinations of individuals who have criticized or embarrassed Kadyrov. He doesn’t, however, list all the names. The two most prominent figures on the list would certainly be Anna Politkovskaya, the veteran Russian war reporter whose courageous coverage of developments from Chechnya forced Russian prosecutors to bring criminal charges in several cases involving unwarranted violence targeting civilians, killed in her apartment on October 2006, and Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former KGB colonel who defected to the West after refusing to carry out orders to assassinate Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was also well known for his close ties to Chechen opposition figures. He died in November 2006 after ingesting a lethal dose of Polonium-210. The investigations surrounding the death of Israilov may well help investigators understand how Politkovskaya and Litvinenko were killed.

All of these cases point to a dangerous practice of political murder-for-hire that has its roots in Russia and does not recognize the asylum granted by European powers. The disclosures surrounding Kadyrov will also provide an important test case for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He has been Kadyrov’s unquestioning protector up to this point. Will Kadyrov continue to be sheltered as his violent practices get a high-profile airing in the West?

Update: Kadyrov’s Denial

The Times now reports that President Kadyrov has denied the accusations:

“Excuse me, but it would be so stupid and cruel to kill a person in the city center,” Mr. Kadyrov said Thursday at a news conference in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, a region in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia. “Why would I need to do this?”

Kadyrov presented an alternative hypothesis about the killing: that Israilov was the target of a blood feud. “‘He killed people, committed crimes and had dozens of enemies,’ he said. ‘Blood feuds in the Caucasus are no joke, not empty words.’”

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