Russia’s Relentless Hunting of Chechens Decades After Putin’s War

Never Safe: A young Chechen exile walks past a wall near the Danube Canal in Vienna.

VIENNA: Twenty years after Vladimir Putin razed their capital Grozny the same way his forces are now destroying Mariupol, Chechen refugees in Europe still live in fear of Russia’s long arm.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the small Muslim-majority republic in the North Caucasus in the aftermath of two bloody wars with Moscow, the last launched by Putin in 1999 to bring the separatist region to heel.

The Russian leader then installed Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya’s strongman. He has since ruthlessly suppressed all opposition and never tires of declaring his fierce loyalty to Putin.

Austria has one of the largest Chechen communities in Europe. Many of the 35,000 exiles live in nondescript post-war blocks in a working class neighborhood in northeast Vienna. Men tend to work as security guards while women raise children.

But many in these streets dotted with Chechen grocery stores and bridal shops live in dread.

Dozens of people told AFP the constant threat of being targeted by Kadyrov’s notorious henchmen, the “Kadyrovtsy”, who have been accused of hunting down his opponents abroad.

Others fear being sent back to be tortured and killed – a fear that is far from unfounded according to human rights groups.

Before the war in Ukraine, extraditions of Chechens from Europe to Russia accelerated after the Boston Marathon terror attack and the horrific murder of a French teacher by a young exile.

Despite the conflict, there is no sign that the deportations will stop.

– ‘Rewrite history’ –

Moscow’s arm reached Zorbek Nazuev, a grandfather with a long gray beard who has lived in Austria for 18 years, last February.

He had fled there with his children after the second conflict, fearing reprisals for having fought with the “boeviki”, the Chechen rebels who defeated the Russians in the first war between 1994 and 1996, when Chechnya briefly obtained his independence.

He had no news from Moscow since his departure until a letter from the Austrian prosecutor’s office accused him of terrorism and murder.

According to a document seen by AFP, prosecutors claim to have information that he participated in a massacre of Russian civilians in 1995.

Nazuev denies having “killed innocent people”, insisting that he and other Chechen fighters were only “defending themselves from the Russian invader”.

“They are rewriting history,” said the stocky man in his 50s, whose name has been changed to protect him.

Nazuev wonders if the charges and possible extradition he faces could be linked to the fact that someone close to him fought in Syria with the Islamic State group.

The Austrian authorities have refused to discuss the case despite numerous attempts by AFP via police and judicial sources.

– Agreement with Russia –

Hundreds of Chechens have been expelled from the European Union since the signing in 2006 of an agreement with Russia to facilitate the return of convicted suspects or the subject of an Interpol red notice.

No official statistics on extraditions exist, but the Council of Europe denounced the abuse of the Interpol system by certain countries to “persecute political opponents abroad” in a 2017 report.

The exiles also believe that European countries have hardened their line against them due to terror fears after the Chechens were implicated in a number of jihadist attacks.

“Obviously, the security services are on alert” to try to prevent future attacks, said Anne le Huerou, a specialist in post-Soviet conflicts at the University of Paris Nanterre.

Indeed, after the assassination of French teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen refugee in October 2020, Austria created a special force to fight against extremism and “parallel societies” within its Chechen community.

A month after Paty’s murder, Vienna suffered its first-ever Islamist attack when four people were killed by a man believed to be a jihadist sympathizer, with authorities lambasted for surveillance failures on the eve of the attack.

Just over a year later, in December 2021, Austria chartered a flight to deport 10 people to Russia, boasting of its “effective cooperation” with Moscow.

Questioned by AFP, the Austrian government admitted that currently “four Russian nationals are in detention awaiting deportation”.

Although commercial flights with Russia have been halted by sanctions related to the war in Ukraine, deportations are still ongoing, according to the Austrian Interior Ministry.

– Tortured in Grozny –

“I’d rather kill myself here than go back,” said Nazuev, who claimed he was left disabled after being tortured with electric shocks before fleeing Chechnya.

Moscow has continually assured European governments that Chechen exiles returned to Russia would be treated fairly.

However, several have been killed or disappeared, while others have been tortured or convicted on charges which the rights group says have been “fabricated”.

Last month, the Russian rights group Memorial – which has since been banned by Moscow – criticized France for turning a blind eye to the death of 20-year-old Daud Muradov, who was returned to Russia in December 2020 after been considered a security risk.

Late last year he was transferred to Grozny where he was tortured, they said.

His relatives learned in February that he had died. They have not received his body or the results of an autopsy, Memorial added.

– Killed in Vienna –

But even more than the extradition, the Chechen exiles fear the assassins that Kadyrov sends to liquidate his opponents in exile.

Austrian courts have named the Chechen leader for his involvement in the murder of an opponent who was shot dead in Vienna in 2009 after criticizing Kadyrov’s human rights record.

The victim’s lawyer, Nadia Lorenz, told AFP that the case “still keeps me awake”, saying that “correspondence between Austrian justice and Grozny” allowed the killers to determine where his wife lived. customer.

Days before he was shot dead, Umar Israylov, a father of four, was denied police protection as he was being followed in the street.

The case shed light on the workings of Kadyrov’s assassins, with prosecutors believing he gave the order to assassinate Israylov.

According to Israylov’s widow, the Chechen leader called her husband twice before he was shot, demanding that he return to Russia immediately.

But Kadyrov’s role was never fully publicized as Moscow ignored calls for help from Vienna with the investigation.

Chechen activist Rosa Dunaeva insists the “Kadyrovtsy” were responsible for another hit in Vienna in July 2020 as well as similar killings in Lille, France, earlier that year and in Istanbul in 2011.

– Harassment –

“The media gives the impression that we are involved in crime and religious extremism, while the vast majority of Chechens live in fear and no longer want anything to do with politics,” Dunaeva said during the interview. one of the regular demonstrations against the deportations. .

Indeed, many Chechens are well integrated in Austria, such as judo champion Shamil Borchashvili, who won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

Or Zelimkhan Kazan. The 19-year-old – whose name we have changed for his safety – was born in Austria and has never been to Chechnya. He studies programming and has already set up two start-ups.

“I’m working and I have everything I need, but I don’t feel 100% safe,” the mixed martial arts (MMA) fan said as he trained at the edge of the Danube channel.

“There’s no way I can get away with the things an Austrian teenager might do – for me that would be a death sentence,” he insisted, meaning deportation to Russia.

Kazan, who has no Russian papers but only a stay in Austria, cannot be naturalized in the country where he was born due to Vienna’s strict nationality laws.

Which can complicate his life when Kazan says that plainclothes police arrest him “three or four times a month” to check his papers.

“Some people call me a fag, hoping that I will react violently,” he added.

All the Chechen refugees interviewed by AFP said they felt targeted by the police, the slightest clash leading to a conviction could see them expelled.

Last July, Austrian police officers were found guilty of beating a Chechen after being filmed by security cameras.

– Kadyrov’s “brainwashing” –

Kazan must also run the gauntlet of “Kadyrovtsy”, which are distinguished by their big cars and their swagger. When he sees them, he pulls down his hood so they won’t ask him any questions.

Activist Dunaeva is equally worried about the growing hold that Ramzan Kadyrov – who has a large following on social media – has over young European-born Chechens. “When he’s not killing them, he’s brainwashing them and trying to turn them against the West,” she said.

The Chechens also speak of cocaine trafficking which destroys the lives of young men who see no future and are easy prey for mafia clans. And women complain that their freedom is restricted by their “big brothers”.

Angered by the discrimination they face in Austria, some fall into the trap of the charismatic Kadyrov, and easily lend themselves to his macho posturing on social media, dividing families who had fled his grip.

“The regime also promises good career prospects for young Chechens trained in Europe who return” to their country of origin, said French expert Le Huerou. “Anti-gay propaganda that celebrates masculinity may also appeal” to some Chechens steeped in the country’s martial mythology.

A contingent of a thousand Chechens was reportedly sent by Kadyrov to fight for Moscow in Ukraine. But other Chechens are also fighting alongside the Ukrainians, several sources told AFP.

And among the millions of refugees fleeing the fighting, a young Chechen woman traveling with her son has been arrested in Romania. The courts have already ordered his extradition, accusing him of “being part of an armed group opposed to the Russian Federation”. His appeal has now been dismissed.

Russia may have started a new war, but its hunt for the Chechens continues unabated.

Helen L. Cuellar