MOSCOW—Every Chechen has come to fear the word “abduction.” Anyone who dares to speak out against Ramzan Kadyrov—the Putin-anointed leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya—dreads the heavy steps of armed men at their door.
The latest spate of raids against critics and bloggers began last week. Men and women were snatched and disappeared without trace. In many instances, the only “crime” committed by those taken away and detained illegally was being related to human rights defenders or critics of the regime.
Abubakar Yangulbaev, a lawyer with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, told The Daily Beast that he had been “worried sick” by Christmas Eve as he struggled to get in touch with more than 30 members of his own family.
“I constantly checked Telegram channels, saw terrible news that all Yanbungalayevs had been abducted, as well as many Musayevs from my mother’s side of the family,” he said.
By Christmas Day, the scale of the horror had been confirmed. “My dear aunts, my uncles, my cousins disappeared; I learned from Telegram channels, that the abductors took cellphones from them, so I published a post with a photograph of my family members on Saturday and officially appealed to the Investigative Committee,” Yangulbaev, 29, told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday.
The following morning, he was taken too.
Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, a public investigator of human rights violations at the committee where Yangulbaev works, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday: “This morning officials from the Chechen Center to Prevent Extremism or simply political police came to search Abubakar Yangulbaev’s home in the city of Kislovodsk; they detained Yangulbaev and took him to a police station in Pyatigorsk. So far our lawyer, who is right outside the door of the police station, has not been allowed to see his client. Our biggest fear is that they will move Yangulbaev to Chechnya, where we constantly see police violating authority.”
Russia’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture NGO says the current list of “disappeared” people includes more than 50 names, including Yangulbaev’s family. “Our lawyers and observers searched homes and police stations in Grozny and Urus-Martan region with the names of the abducted,” Magomed Alamov, a human rights defender at the committee told The Daily Beast. “Only one police station said that they had none of these people among their arrested, others sent our lawyer away without any answer.”
Yangulbaev said he left Chechnya after being tortured with electric shocks along with his younger brother. He has his own personal memories of what “abduction” means.
“I was abducted by six men in civilian clothes along with my younger brother, a student of the Chechen State University, and my father, a judge of the Supreme court, in 2015,” he said. “They wanted me to say that my father was corrupt and my brother was with ISIS; they let me and my father go after 10 hours but kept my brother for several weeks in a police basement.”
Yangulbaev says he had managed to move six family members away from Chechnya but there are still many more relatives within the republic’s territory who live in fear of becoming hostages. “I suspect that Chechen authorities punish my relatives for my work as a human rights defender and they might also suspect I have anything to do with the Telegram channel criticizing Kadyrov,” he says. “That is not true, I don’t work for the opposition, I am a lawyer at the Committee for the Prevention of Torture.”
Kadyrov, who is known as “Putin’s soldier,” gave a press conference over the weekend denying that this latest round of abductions had even taken place. According to the TASS state news agency, he claimed those reports were fake news spread by “European bloggers, who openly support terrorism.”
“If there is anything, we’ll look with pleasure. But there is a fact: a Chechen never forgives, when somebody abuses his family’s dignity, his family members, especially women. They should understand that if they abuse the dignity of my family, mother, sisters, wife,—I swear, I will go to any court, to the tribunal but I am never going to leave this alone. They should understand that.”
In other words, while he was denying the abductions on the face of it, the Chechen leader was also confirming that the traditional blood feud was still in play in modern Russia—and not only that, vengeance against family members could even be committed by public officials.
“Russian law does not allow collective responsibility but Kadyrov does, so anybody who criticizes Kadyrov cannot be safe in the republic,” Alamov told The Daily Beast. “Kadyrov’s men go after not only the father’s side of Yangulbaev’s relatives but also after the mother’s side, which is even by Chechen traditional rules is absolutely insane.”
At his annual press conference last week, President Putin slammed this kind of state overreach even though it has been allowed to flourish under his rule. “I think that this score-settling is not just unacceptable, it does nothing but harm our country,” he said. “They must understand that the state will fight this kind of crime. We will continue doing everything within our power.”
After being targeted in attacks for years, Sergei Shunin of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture said he hoped Kadyrov had finally gone too far, even in the eyes of Moscow.
“Our offices were set on fire, our colleagues got attacked and now we hear about the biggest number of relatives abducted from just one family,” said Sergei Shunin. “If the governor of Chechnya denies the fact of abductions, we’ll appeal to President Putin.”