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article imageChechnya's last rights group feels heat from strongman Kadyrov

By Maria ANTONOVA (AFP)     Jan 19, 2018 in World

A recent arson attack on Russian rights group Memorial and the arrest of its Chechnya head are the latest steps by Chechen authorities to quash dissent as strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's influence continues to grow, activists and observers told AFP.

It has become "practically impossible" for rights workers to do their job in the region, said Oleg Orlov, a member of Memorial rights centre.

The group's office in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya, was torched Wednesday in an arson attack.

This followed the arrest on January 9 on drug charges of Oyub Titiyev, the head of Memorial's 18-year-old Chechnya branch in Grozny.

On Friday, Chechen police raided the office for the third time within a week.

Memorial activists and others who worked in the region say these events are part of a decade-long battle waged by Kadyrov against rights activists, as he builds a "totalitarian" state within Russia.

Memorial is the last rights organisation to retain a visible presence in Muslim-dominated Chechnya while critical of Kadyrov -- an act of defiance the leader considers unacceptable, said Igor Kalyapin, who heads the Committee Against Torture activist group.

Kalyapin accused Kadyrov of "trying to build an ideal totalitarian system in Chechnya -- one that has to be based not just on fear but on true love".

"He wants everyone to see him as an undisputed ruler," the activist told AFP.

"If somebody speaks badly of him in Chechnya, to him that's like his home got burgled," he said, describing the Chechen regime as waging an "undeclared war" on rights activists.

Kadyrov this week lashed out against activists, warning: "They should know: their work in our republic will not be condoned."

- 'State terror' -

Rights organisations have significantly scaled down their presence in Chechnya since Titiyev's predecessor Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in 2009.

But Kalyapin's committee for several years continued to send rights workers to Chechnya for short stints.

The group's offices in Chechnya and Ingushetia were torched and raided on several occasions between 2014 and 2016 and its employees attacked. Kalyapin was egged and doused with green dye two years ago.

"None of these criminal cases was investigated," he said.

Activist Igor Kalyapin has accused Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of trying to build "an ideal t...
Activist Igor Kalyapin has accused Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of trying to build "an ideal totalitarian system"
Alexander NEMENOV, AFP

Such attacks usually appear to be carried out by an angry mob, allowing Kadyrov to distance himself, but activists say that in reality he is the mastermind.

"You can't even sneeze in Chechnya without Kadyrov," Kalyapin said. "No one there has the right to act independently."

Kalyapin's organisation no longer has an office in Chechnya, in part because the number of Chechens asking for help plummeted.

"The Chechens concluded: why go to these people for help if they can't protect themselves? How will they help us?", Kalyapin said bitterly.

Memorial's Orlov added: "It's a type of state-led terror when the authorities frighten people to such an extent that they are afraid to protect their rights in any way."

- Instagram ban backlash -

Last month the United States placed Kadyrov on a blacklist of "gross violators of human rights in Russia". Shortly after, Kadyrov was blocked by Instagram where he had more than three million followers.

Though the Chechen regime had long wanted to oust Memorial, the Instagram ban may have been a trigger, said longtime Caucasus analyst Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention centre.

"Instagram was a crucial propaganda tool and his favourite toy," she said.

The Chechen leader may have seen Memorial as one group behind his blacklisting, as remarks by one of his closest allies in late December suggested.

"It's not hard to guess on whose advice the US authorities sanctioned our leader," Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov said, blaming "pseudo rights workers working in various 'committees' and 'centres'".

"I think it's time to... isolate our enemies from healthy society," Daudov added, quoted by Chechen news agency Grozny Inform. Tityev was arrested two weeks later.

Protesters demonstrated against Chechnya's crackdown on gay men  in front of the Chancellery in...
Protesters demonstrated against Chechnya's crackdown on gay men, in front of the Chancellery in Berlin last April

Rights workers have accused Kadyrov's law enforcement of perpetrating grave abuses against alleged jihadists, their relatives, critics, activists, gays, and most recently drug users.

Despite the scandals, his popularity has only grown while his influence has spread beyond Chechnya and even increasingly into the Middle East.

This may also have emboldened him to move against the respected rights group, Sokiryanskaya said.

Kalyapin agreed that "Kadyrov's popularity is certainly growing".

A May 2017 survey by state pollster VTsIOM found 77 percent of Russians see Kadyrov's activities as at least partly beneficial.

In Syria, Kadyrov is sponsoring the rebuilding of Islamic heritage while Chechen servicemen are crucial in securing de-escalation zones and humanitarian cargo.

National television hails his efforts to rescue from Iraq the abandoned children of Islamic State fighters, who often originated from the Russian North Caucasus.

"He gained even greater political weight in 2017," Sokiryanskaya said. "He understands his political capital is growing and so the impunity of the regime is growing, too."

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