Moscow, Russia – Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman, branded the two women “devils” and “national traitors”.
In early September, he pledged to hold judge Natalya Perchenko and prosecutor Tatyana Bilobrovets “personally responsible” for their decision to ban a book of Quranic quotes and comments on them.
The book – titled Invocation (Dua) to God, Its Meaning and Place in Islam – was outlawed by a court in the Pacific town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in August after searches among conservative Muslims turned up copies.
The ban was part of a much-criticized official effort to ban “extremist” literature, but the response of the gruff-talking, bullnecked and bearded Chechen leader – whose enemies and critics sometimes die violent deaths, and whose security squads human rights groups accuse of atrocities, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings – was still a bit too menacing.
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“If they are not punished legally, I will be forced to become a criminal,” Kadyrov said in a statement posted on his social networking pages.
The diatribe was just one of the controversial statements and steps that openly defy Russian laws – and make the former anti-Russian fighter look like a polarizing figure, whose words and deeds outweigh his status as the leader of an impoverished, Kuwait-sized province with a population of 1.4 million.
In recent years, Kadyrov spoke in favour of honour killings and polygamy, virtually banned the sale of alcohol in Chechnya, and enforced a compulsory Muslim dress code on Chechen women. Those who ignored the policy were publicly shamed, abused, and shot at with paintball guns.
Rights groups say Kadyrov’s paramilitary forces terrorize, abduct, and kill innocent civilians claiming they were Islamic rebels, and almost a dozen of his political enemies and critics, including two women, have been gunned down since his ascension to power in the mid-2000s.
Over the years, Kaydrov has denied accusations that he ordered the killing of any of his critics.
Under him, Chechnya has become “a totalitarian part of Russia”, human rights advocate Lev Ponomaryov told Al Jazeera.
“All the human rights you can imagine are being violated, laws are not being enacted, and if some things run according to the Russian legislation it’s just because Kadyrov said so,” said Ponomaryov.
In a country where the rule of law and democratic freedoms have eroded over the 15 years of President Vladimir Putin’s reign, it is his loyalty to Putin that makes Kadyrov untouchable.
“He says he’s Putin’s soldier. He is absolutely loyal to him, he is absolutely loyal to Russia, but a special part of Russia – the Russia that can live according to Chechen laws,” Islam researcher Alexey Malashenko told Al Jazeera.
Shoot to kill
Kadyrov’s threat to the officials who banned the Quranic quote book seemed frighteningly effective. Within days, the prosecutor blamed the judge for “misinterpreting” her recommendation, while court officials admitted they “could have made” a mistake.
Even Kadyrov’s harshest critics approved his indignation at the book ban – but not his pledge to punish the judge and prosecutor.
“It was absolutely just,” Ponomaryov said, though he called his threat to federal officials “extremist”.
The pledge was not the only threat Kadyrov has made and got away with. In April, he instructed Chechen security officers to “shoot and kill” their colleagues from other Russian regions in case the latter failed to inform him beforehand about their covert operations in Chechnya.
The province is still a hideout for a handful of fighters who hide in the dense forests and mountains after two separatist wars that gave rise to an Islamist revolt in the entire Caucasus region around Chechnya.
Kadyrov was once one of them.
In the 1990s, he was a teenage fighter who battled Russian soldiers during the first Chechen war that ended with the province’s de facto independence. His father, Akhmad, was Chechnya’s top Muslim cleric with a penchant for Sufi mysticism who declared a holy war on Russia.
But after Akhmad Kadyrov fell out with Salafist puritans, he sided with the Kremlin during the second Chechen war that started in 1999, and ended after his 2004 assassination and his son’s ascent to power.
The Kremlin sought to “Chechenize” the war by pitting pro-Moscow Chechens against the separatists. Kadyrov used a stick-and-carrot tactic to pacify Chechnya – he persecuted family members of rebels, had their houses burned down, and urged rebels to switch sides and join his security squads, rights groups and witnesses said.
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One such former rebel, Umar Israilov, became his bodyguard, but fled Russia in 2004 accusing Kadyrov of personally torturing him and ordering extrajudicial killings. Israilov was shot dead in Vienna in 2009, and two years later, three Chechens were convicted of organizing the killing. Austrian prosecutors said Kadyrov ordered Israilov’s abduction that went awry.
Sulim Yamadayev, who headed the largest pro-Moscow military unit in Chechnya that did not report to Kadyrov, was killed in Dubai in 2010. A Dubai court sentenced two former employees of Kadyrov to life in prison, and Dubai police claimed Kadyrov’s right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov, planned the murder.
Another Yamadayev brother, Ruslan, a former Russian lawmaker, was gunned down in Moscow in 2008.
Also in 2009, Chechen rights activist Natalya Estemirova, whose reports enraged Kadyrov, was kidnapped and killed. Kadyrov condemned the murder saying the attackers “deserve no support and must be punished as the cruelest of criminals”, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Estemirova had worked with journalist Anna Politkovskaya – who accused Kadyrov of atrocities and rights violations – and was shot dead in 2006.
Protector of Russia’s Muslims?
In recent years, Kadyrov has taken the role of Russia’s most outspoken Muslim leader, and Kremlin-controlled media readily channel his views.
After the January killing of 12 staffers of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, he organized a march and a collective prayer in Grozny, capital of Chechnya, to condemn the caricatures mocking Prophet Muhammad that triggered the massacre.
Chechen police claimed that one million people from Chechnya and neighbouring provinces turned up for the rally chanting “God is great!” and holding banners praising Islam and Muhammad.
A Russian daily reported that Kadyrov’s officials told business owners and managers to give their employees a day off and forced cabbies to drive people to and from the rally free of charge.
When exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now lives in Switzerland, called on Russian media to reprint the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, Kadyrov called him “an enemy of all Muslims worldwide”, and said even in Switzerland there will be people who would “hold the runaway criminal responsible”.
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Kadyrov is also one of Russia’s most vocal critics of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that he said recruited hundreds of ethnic Chechens.
He called ISIL fighters “terrorists and junkies”, the territories they occupied “a state of Iblis [the Devil]”, and vowed to fight them personally if Putin orders him to.
Condemning their ideology and tactics, he paradoxically claims that ISIL has been nurtured and backed by the West.
“This gang has nothing to do with Islam,” he said in a statement in late September. “It was spawned and is fully controlled by Western special services.”
Although such proclamations undermine the Kremlin’s efforts to form an anti-ISIL coalition in Syria, Kadyrov gets away with them because of his symbiotic relation with Putin, a Moscow-based political analyst said.
“For years, Vladimir Putin saw the pacification of Chechnya as his main achievement,” Stanislav Belkovsky told Al Jazeera. “In that respect, Putin has a colossal psychological dependency on Chechnya – and Ramzan Kadyrov who ensured the pacification.”