It’s been two months since Salman Tepsurkayev, a resident of Chechnya, was subjected to sexual violence and torture, and then disappeared without a trace. In early September, videos showing the ill-treatment of the 19-year-old man emerged online, sparking a strong reaction in Chechen communities around the world.
The Tepsurkayev case is shocking, but it’s already the new norm - whether inside or outside Chechnya, the republic’s authorities abduct, torture and kill those who disagree with them online.
“A slug in your forehead or sit on a bottle”
In April 2020, a new Telegram channel appeared in Chechnya, and immediately hit the headlines. The 1adat channel (adat means “custom” in Chechen) positions itself as a “popular movement against the Putin-Kadyrov dictatorship”. Based on the popular Telegram app, the social media channel carries stories about abductions and torture of Chechen residents by local law enforcement, and broadcasts fierce criticism of public officials at various levels.
In these few months, the channel has become a popular source of information on human rights in Chechnya. According to its administrators, its sources are local residents working in various areas, including police officers and associates of Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the republic.
On 7 September, 1adat showed a video showing Salman Tepsurkayev sitting completely naked in the corner of a room. Speaking to camera, Tepsurkayev says that he runs the 1adat channel, and that he uses it “to insult other people’s mothers and sisters”. He then calls the channel “a dirty gang” and himself a “bastard”. At the end of the video, Tepsurkayev says that he has decided to punish himself for “conduct unseemly of a man”, takes a glass bottle and attempts to sit on it, pushing it inside himself.
In the week that followed, several new videos appeared showing Tepsurkayev insulting people who criticised the Chechen government for violence against him. He also accused 1adat’s administrators of “handing him over to the security services”. In one video, he says that he had only two choices: “Either a slug in the forehead or sit on a bottle.”
Rights defenders from Russia’s Committee Against Torture discovered that Tepsurkayev was abducted from a hotel in Gelendzhik, Krasnodar region, on 6 September by Chechen police. Tepsurkayev’s wife Yelizaveta used mobile phone tracking to establish that on the day on which the video was made, her husband’s mobile phone was at the Akhmat Kadyrov police compound in Grozny, capital of Chechnya.
The original video of Tepsurkayev’s torture was sent to 1adat’s chat room from Tepsurkayev’s Telegram account. According to the channel founder, who remains anonymous, Tepsurkayev spent two weeks as a chat moderator but “was dropped following disagreements”.
Public reaction to government threats
Reports of abductions and torture appear regularly in Chechnya, but tend to provoke little public reaction. The video showing sexual violence against Tepsurkayev, however, provoked shock and silent indignation, although no one in the republic condemned it openly.
Nevertheless, a number of Chechen political emigres living in Europe have criticised the region’s leadership. For example, Akmed Zakayev, a former field commander from the first Russo-Chechen War now resident in London, condemned the Chechen authorities for the treatment of the young man and, in solidarity with Tepsurkayev, called himself an honorary “moderator of the 1adat channel”. Zakayev positions himself as the Chechen government’s prime minister in exile.
The Chechen government’s reaction was immediate. The next day, Zakayev announced that his close relatives in Chechnya had been detained. Kadyrov, Duma member Adam Delimkhanov and Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov publicly supported the violence against Tepsurkayev, making threats against Zakayev.
Speaking in the Chechen Parliament, Kadyrov said that he does not “consider people associated with groups such as 1adat men”, and called the violence against Tepsurkayev “just retribution for insulting behaviour”. In his speech, Kadyrov practically admitted that he was aware that Tepsurkayev had been tortured, but that he was against posting the video itself.
On the day following Kadyrov’s speech, local state TV began showing “residents’ meetings” across Chechnya, while police chiefs and other officials close to Kadyrov threatened Zakayev and other critics in exile in Europe. The head of Kadyrov’s security guard Abuzaid Vismuradov said that “regardless of the country of residence [of a given citizen – ed.], Kadyrov is the ruler of all Chechens, and those who don’t like it must realise that they will pay a steep price for it”. Police chief Ruslan Alkhanov expressed his indignation at the criticism levelled at the government over the violence meted out to the young man: “What do you mean? How can he get away without punishment, if he writes some poems or other and insults our mothers and sisters?”
Russian political commentator Alexey Malashenko believes that the public humiliation of Zakayev is an “absolutely normal event” when it comes to Kadyrov’s propaganda. “Zakayev enjoys quite a lot of authority, not least because he isn’t afraid of Kadyrov, whilst Kadyrov can’t bear any competition,” Malashenko said in an interview.
Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a prominent blogger who lives in Poland, explains that “Zakayev is a convenient whipping boy”, as the “Kadyrovites have plenty to criticise him for.” According to Abdurakhmanov, Kadyrov’s propaganda has previously broadcast evidence that the leadership of the Chechen independence movement has criticised Zakayev, which is then used to discredit all supporters of Chechen independence.
After a wave of threats from officials, Ahmed Zakayev’s relatives were forced to disavow him for a second time. After doing this in 2016, Kadyrov then announced that Zakayev’s relatives in Chechnya would no longer be responsible for any actions and statements on the exiled leader’s part.
The people’s movement
In the aftermath of the Tepsurkayev video, the 1adat channel has now had four million views, its creators claim. I contacted them via the channel’s chatbot service, and the channel’s founder, who asks to be called Abdullah, says that the social media platform is run by seven administrators, most of whom live in Chechnya. According to Abdullah, all of the channel’s administrators have made critical remarks about the Chechen government on social media in the past - and were subject to unlawful persecution and torture as a result. The channel owners see their goal as “the liberation of the Chechen people from the government” and themselves - soldiers in an information war.
Abdullah tells me that in Chechnya, people can be abducted and tortured “for no reason at all” - and maximum publicity is therefore the most effective method of stopping torture and liberating a victim. “If family and relatives stay quiet, Kadyrovites can do what they like to the people they have abducted, even to the point of murder. But when information about a case is made public, they have to change their plans,” he says.
Talking about the situation in Chechnya and the low level of public trust in the republic’s rulers, 1adat moderators explain that a large part of the population, including public employees, are unhappy with the present state of affairs, where there is a total absence of human rights but no one will talk about it openly for fear of persecution.
“Everyone knows if someone were to attempt something against Kadyrov, Putin will step in with his troops – and people are just so tired of these wars. The people are only putting up with the situation to avoid a war,” they say.
Abdullah says that Chechen law enforcement began attempts to identify channel administrators back in June, trying to win the activists’ trust and feeding them leaked information. “We recognise the risks, of course, but before getting involved we looked at how to keep ourselves safe. We’re not afraid of being found out – that’s practically impossible,” he says, stating that the channel members have their own safety protocols.
Despite 1adat’s popularity, it’s hard to say that it has consolidated critics of the Chechen regime. The channel, for example, has accused Zakayev of trying to win political points in the Tepsurkayev case. They say they have tried to make contact with the London-based political émigré, but he has not responded.
The channel’s publications on abductions and torture are yet to garner any visible reaction among the Chechen public, and law enforcement has so far ignored 1adat’s reports of potential crimes. According to 1adat, Chechen law enforcement periodically check young people’s phones on the street for the presence of “dubious” content and subscriptions to unwelcome social media pages. Nevertheless, in recent months, 1adat has become a “newsmaker” of sorts in Russia’s North Caucasus, and is cited in independent regional media such as Caucasian Knot, OC Media and Kavkaz.realii.
How the Chechen government persecutes critics living in Chechnya
Salman Tepsurkayev’s story has been the centre of attention in Chechnya in the past two months. But it’s not the first time that government bodies have tortured and humiliated people who post negative comments about them online. 1adat regularly reports how local residents by the police authorities are unlawfully detained, but these reports are so far ignored or denied by relatives.
For example, earlier this year, nine teenagers, all members of the same Telegram chatroom, were arrested. They had used the chat, named Osalnakh 95 (“Unworthy people” in Chechen), to make fun of people from Chechnya – both people close to the Kadyrov leadership and ordinary citizens. In videos released on pro-government accounts, the teenagers publicly asked forgiveness for “unworthy behaviour and insulting respected people.”
Then, in October, a Grozny court convicted local resident Islam Nukhanov, who was abducted by police officers from his home a day after posting a video from Baronovka, the elite Grozny district where associates of Kadyrov own residences.
Explaining the content of the video online, Nukhanov wrote that he wanted to show the difference between the lifestyle of Kadyrov’s circle and that of ordinary Chechens. He didn’t manage to shoot a second part. After being tortured, Nukhanov was officially arrested, and accused of possession of weapons and resistance to members of the law enforcement organs. He received four years in prison.
The only recent exception to Chechnya’s “rule of silence” is the family of Movsar Umarov, who was abducted in Grozny in July. Umarov’s mother believes her son was arrested for watching videos by blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, and his family managed to have a criminal case opened over the abduction. Chechen police told Umarov’s relatives that he had run away, but his brother believes that he died as a result of torture. On 29 September, investigators opened a murder investigation. His fate is still unknown.
Public humiliation of Chechen government critics became a regular feature around five years ago, when a young man, Adam Dikayev, became the first victim of the “Tepsurkayev” scenario in the republic. Unfortunately, he was not the last.
On 11 December 2015, the anniversary of the start of the first Russian-Chechen War, Adam Dikayev published a photo showing the destruction of Grozny on Instagram. “These are events from 15 years ago. Not 150, not 300 – just 15. And the King is jogging round a running track to a song called ‘My Best Friend is President Putin’,” wrote Dikayev, who signed off with “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten!” His post appeared after Kadyrov brought out a video in which he works out to a track by Russian singer Timati.
A week later, a video appeared showing Dikayev on an exercise machine, wearing a sweatshirt and underwear. “I created an Instagram group and wrote something I shouldn’t have,” he says to camera. “I thought they wouldn’t find me, but they did, and they took down my shorts. Since that moment, Putin has become my father, grandfather and Tsar.” Dikayev’s family later managed to set him free, after which he left the republic.
A few days later, on 18 December, a lecturer at the Grozny Oil Institute was abducted in Grozny. Apparently, local law enforcement did not like Khizir Ezhiyev’s comments on the VKontakte social network. At the time, the police informed Ezhiyev’s family that their relative had “run off”, but on 1 January 2016 Chechnya’s interior ministry stated that the man’s body had been found in the woods. Officially, it was stated that he fell from a height, but his family claimed that he died following torture - they decided not to go public with the information in fear of persecution. Khizir Ezhiyev was survived by his wife and four children.
In April 2016, another abduction took place, when armed men detained Khusein Betelgeriyev, a popular bard and university lecturer. His wife stated that law enforcement did not take kindly to her husband’s comments on Facebook. In contrast to the Ezhiyev case, Betelgeriyev’s wife immediately contacted police, and media reports forced the prosecutor’s office to request the Investigative Committee to locate the man. Eleven days later, he came home, still with marks from the beatings. Betelgeriyev refused to talk to the press, and emigrated to France soon after.
That same month, the house of a resident in a mountain village was burned down. Ramazan Dzhalaldinov had previously recorded a video appeal to Vladimir Putin to complain about corruption in Chechnya, but was then forced to flee to neighbouring Dagestan. He later asked Kadyrov to forgive him, and return to his village, Kenkhi. There are reports that he was then forced to leave the republic after further pressure from the authorities.
Revenge without borders
The humiliation suffered by Adam Dikayev provoked a response in Chechnya’s diaspora in Europe. Several public events were organised, where participants condemned the Chechen authorities - and Kadyrov personally for the persecution of critics. In response, Kadyrov stated that the relatives of these “European Chechens” would answer for their words and deeds. Since then, segments showing relatives of critics disavowing family members have been shown regularly on state television - and in several cases have been followed by assasination attempts in Europe.
For example, in April 2019, relatives of popular blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, who fled Russia after being detained in Chechnya, were forced to renounce him. Nearly a year later, an unknown person made an attempt on Abdurakhmanov’s life in Sweden. A month earlier, the family of Minkail Malizayev, a Chechen opposition blogger living in Europe, disavowed him publicly. Malizayev was later subject to an assasination attempt in Germany.
Other assasination attempts have been successful. In January this year, blogger Mansur Aliyev was found murdered in his hotel room in Lille - Aliyev had been known for his fierce criticism of Kadyrov and his inner circle. Then, in July, Mamikhan Umarov, another YouTube critic, was murdered in Vienna.
Torture as policy
In an interview with oDR, Alexey Malashenko explains that the Chechen regime’s pursuit of critics is linked directly to Kadyrov’s fear of losing power. “He’s a dictator who has destroyed many of his opponents. Now, he and his associates are afraid of losing power, because while they are in power he can do whatever they like in Chechnya, and thus secure their safety.”
According to Malashenko, Kadyrov acts in Chechnya exactly as his patron Vladimir Putin does in Russia. “It’s just that everything is crueler in the Caucasus, and of course they think that the tougher they act in terms of torture, the better their chances of holding on to power,” he says.
Ruslan Kutayev, a civic activist and former political prisoner, points to the Kremlin policy’s in the republic. In his words, the Russian government has given “absolute carte blanche to Kadyrov in Chechnya in return for loyalty and stability in the region”, noting that the situation in the republic reflects broader problems with police violence in Russia as a whole.
Both experts believe that Kadyrov considers Chechnya his own “feudal fiefdom” and that the Kremlin is well aware of human rights violations there. “The Kremlin couldn’t care less about people being tortured and murdered in Chechnya. The important thing is loyalty to Putin and stability against terrorism. Kadyrov won’t stay long in power without Putin, and neither will his associates. So, he acts strictly within the framework of what he’s permitted,” says Malashenko.
According to Malashenko, Kadyrov’s unlimited power and the persecution of “freethinkers in Chechnya” is a Kremlin policy, whereby “young people and the population in general will be afraid of the police and lose any desire to protest.” This strategy has failed, Malashenko says, as very “many people, bearing grudges, are awaiting changes in the country and region”.