Last January I went to Chechnya. When I was in Moscow airport, I got a call: “Marta, I’m sorry, you can’t stay with me in Grozny like I promised. I’ve had to leave Chechnya urgently, my life was in danger.”
That’s how Chechnya welcomed me once again, with friends who had to flee for questioning the practices of Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime. In this case, my friend had denounced how a colleague of his had died after presumably receiving a brutal beating for having posted comments on social media that were not to the liking of Kadyrov’s circle.
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Tough life for dissidents
In Chechnya there is no free press. No political opposition. The NGOs know their role and they stick to it. The only place where freedom still exists is on the social media, and those who use it to express disagreement with certain policies know that they are placing themselves and their families in danger.
At the very least, they can be beaten up, and in the worst case they can be killed or made to “disappear”. Other common practices include public shaming, burning down troublemakers’ homes or imprisonment on trumped-up charges.
The last case of public shaming was that of Ramadan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of Kenhi, a village in the Chechen mountains. In April he uploaded a video to YouTube in which he asked Vladimir Putin to help resolve the deplorable situation his village was in and criticising the poor administration of the Chechen authorities.
After this, Dzhalaldinov began to receive death threats. He fled to neighbouring Dagestan. On the night of May 12, a group of men forced their way into Dzhalaldinov’s house and set fire to it, burning it to the ground.
Then Chechen security forces surrounded the village, interrogating everyone about the whereabouts of Dzhalaldinov. They learned that he was in Dagestan and on May 15 there was an attempt to kidnap him from the mosque.
Using the method of humiliation, the authorities put pressure on the honour not only of a particular person, but also of his or her family members. Nowadays, there is no way of resolving these offences if they are inflicted by authorities.
Finally, Dzhalaldinov made a public apology to Kadyrov. Without raising his eyes from the ground, Ramadan retracted his YouTube video, declaring that “it had been a big mistake”.
He repeatedly begged the Chechen president to forgive him and warned everybody not to make the same mistake as him.
This video was broadcast on Chechen television. Kadyrov accepted Dzhalaldinov’s apologies and, in a magnanimous gesture, he allowed him and his family to return to Kenhi.
At the same time as this was going on, Kadyrov sent out a warning to all the Chechens who had sought refuge in Europe: “I know about all your comments, I know all the Instagram or Facebook profiles you use. We have all your comments saved and we know who you are … and sooner or later you’ll answer for every one of your words.”
The honour code
Honour occupies a fundamental place in the Chechen imagination. Customs and traditions that have always been at the centre of the Chechen way of life are enshrined in “Nokhchallah”, a code of conduct that brings together all the specific properties of the Chechen character.
Hospitality, respect for elders, manliness and preservation of honour are some of the basic pillars on which Nokhchallah is built. By tradition, serious offences of honour were resolved by blood feud.
This honour code provides Chechens with an understanding of how they should live properly and respectfully.
Yet, Kadyrov is disrupting it. He often uses public humiliation as punishment for those who dare to criticise him, and these people have no way to answer back to this offence.
This was first used against relatives of suspected militants when their parents were forced to confess in front of a video camera how badly they educated their children. But little by little, public shaming has been widely used.
In December 2015, Adam Dikayev, a Chechen blogger, disparaged a video shared by Kadyrov in which he was working out in a Putin T-shirt.
Shortly after Dikayev’s comments, a video was posted on Instagram showing Dikayev in his underpants – a particularly painful humiliation in Chechnya – recanting his criticism of Kadyrov and expressing his support for Putin: “From now on, Putin is my father, my grandfather and everything.”
That same week, Aishat Inaeva, a social worker, was publicly shamed after circulating an audio clip on WhatsApp, in which she complained about the government.
She and her husband were reprimanded by Kadyrov in a face-to-face meeting on Chechen TV. Visibly embarrassed, Inayeva took back everything she had said and her husband apologised for her.
Using the method of humiliation, the authorities put pressure on the honour not only of a particular person, but also that of his or her family members. Nowadays, there is no way of resolving these offences if they are inflicted by authorities.
By acting in this way, Kadyrov has disturbed the system of ethics that regulated Chechen society for centuries. Honour, dignity and freedom have lost their significance under Kadyrov’s rule.
His dictate now tries to control the new ways of life. But the humiliation of those who do not obey could have a boomerang effect against Kadyrov and his regime if it ever becomes weaker.
Marta Ter is the coordinator of an awareness-raising campaign on human rights violations in the North Caucasus, at the Spain-based NGO Lliga dels Drets dels Pobles.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.