MOSCOW—Deep wrinkles covered Ramazan Dzhalaldinov’s face. His big, sad eyes under the glasses were swimming in bitterness. But in spite of the story he told about living in hell these last seven months, the 56-year-old man did not appear to be broken. His voice sounded firm as he told of his escape across the mountains, fleeing Chechnya to tell the press the truth about years of ferocious repression in the North Caucasus republic.
On Friday Dzhalaldinov spoke at a closed press conference amid unprecedented security measures. He came to talk about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the totalitarian repression imposed by local militias.
Before the press conference Dzhalaldinov told The Daily Beast, that the price he has paid for honesty has been “horrifying.”
“Local police have tried everything to silence me. They burned my house, they beat my wife and three daughters, deported us, humiliated us and threatened me, told me they would ‘take me down,’” he told The Daily Beast. “But I did not stop telling the truth because at least once in your lifetime you have to have courage to stay human.”
In the past two years Chechen militia have forced several whistleblowers both in the North Caucasus and in the central regions of Russia to take their words back and apologize after they revealed the abuses of Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
No Russian law enforcement interferes in Chechen state crimes, no Russian law punishes Chechen interrogators. Chechen civilians live in constant fear of “disappearances,” the abductions from which no one returns.
The official line is that life in Chechnya is perfect and Kadyrov, ferociously loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the best. Chechnya lives by its own rules, dictated by one man, the ostentatiously religious and authoritarian Muslim Kadyrov, and nobody is allowed to criticize Kadyrov’s policy.
But Dzhalaldinov is different. He is an Avar, an ethnic group that counts almost one million people, and the Avar are ready to support each other like brothers.
In April he took a video of ruins in his Kenkhi village, houses destroyed by wars with Russia or by floods. He went to Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya and where the majority of Russian Avars live, and he posted the recording to his Vkontakte account as a video letter addressed to President Putin. In it, Dzhalaldinov described his multiple appeals to authorities, requests to compensate the Kenkhi civilians, who lost their houses during past military operations in Chechnya.
The video had immediate effect. Kadyrov personally traveled to Kenkhi village and posed with locals in front of cameras. Terrified village men told the leader that Dzhalaldinov was a liar.
“Chechen officials forced Kenkhi village men to deny everything,” Elena Milashina, a reporter for the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told The Daily Beast. “They made their own video of his neighbors saying that he was unstable. The video was broadcast on local television.” But Milashina had been interviewing Dzhalaldinov since 2014 and knew him as a very sane, very brave man.
The discrediting video did not stop the whistle-blower. On May 2, Dzhalaldinov filed a complaint with Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika against Kadyrov for publically insulting him and rejecting his criticism.
Chechen officials were furious. How could this man dare complain to Moscow about Kadyrov? He didn’t look like much of a threat. He had three daughters and two sons, and that can make a man vulnerable. On May 13, just after Dzhalaldinov’s children went to bed, a dozen masked men broke into his house in Kenkhi village.
The officials ordered the whistle-blower’s wife Nazirat, their daughters 17-year-old Muslimat, 12-year-old Sabirat and 10-year-old Tabarak to dress and come to the police station with them. By now it was midnight. Nazirat begged the officials not to scare children. Beatings followed.
Later somebody burned the house where the family lived and ordered Nazirat and the children to leave the republic. So now Chechen authorities were deporting citizens.
The same month, a TV crew from Russia’s only independent channel, Rain TV, managed to take a video of the ruined village, so that everybody in Russia could see that the whistle-blower was actually telling the truth about the ruins.
The case was rapidly turning into a scandal.
On one side, Chechen officials realized that their Avar critic was supported by neighboring Dagestan, with its 2.9 million people, twice as many as in Chechnya. On the other, the complaint could be taken to court.
By late May, Kadyrov decided to make a deal with Dzhalaldinov. “He gave his personal word that he would pay compensations to all our village families and fix the village; in exchange, I had to publically apologize,” Dzhalaldinov told The Daily Beast.
“I did. I publically admitted that I had made a mistake, so we could return home to Chechnya, to our village; but Kadyrov has not kept his word, our village is still badly ruined, people are still waiting for the compensations.”
Last month Dzhalaldinov bought a plane ticket to travel to Moscow. Kadyrov’s militia immediately picked him up and took him and his wife to the Chechen capital of Grozny for one more interrogation.
Dzhalaldinov’s defense lawyer, Petr Zaikin, described the scene for The Daily Beast: “Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Apty Alaudinov threatened my client’s life and the life of Yelena Milashina, the journalist of Novaya Gazeta who covered his case; Alaudinov said they were next on the list after Anna Politkovskaya, the Yamadayev brothers and Boris Nemtsov”—all infamous political assassinations traced to Chechen killers, but not to those who ordered them. “The senior Chechen official admitted that he knew something about the most famous contract murders—this is sensational and we are going to demand that Alaudinov gets investigated,” Zaikin said.
That day police took Dzhalaldinov’s passport from him, so he could not travel to Moscow. After such a severe threat against his life, Dzhalaldinov decided to escape from Chechnya any way he could. Without any belongings, without proper warm clothes, the whistleblower crossed the mountains into Dagestan and then made his way to Moscow, where he hoped to find justice.
“Over 20,000 Chechens have escaped from that hellish republic in the last couple or years,” the head of the NGO called Civil Assistance, Svetlana Gannushkina, told The Daily Beast. “That place reminds of North Korea, where no official cares about the truth people try to tell them, all they care about is how to shut down whistleblowers.”
After the press conference, Ramazan Dzhalaldinov looked tired and calm, like somebody who had fulfilled his difficult duty. He turned to his defenders and a few reporters remaining in the room and said: “You know why Chechens escape this country? Because they know that ‘the roof’ for Kadyrov”—his cover, his protection—“is in Moscow; that if Putin did not allow him, he would never, never have done this to us.”