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“I’d prefer to die in Poland”: Chechnya’s most famous YouTuber in exile faces deportation to Russia

After fleeing Chechnya, blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov came to command a million-strong audience online. But now he could become the latest person to face “secret” deportation from Poland.

Tumso Abdurakhmanov. Source: YouTube.

This article was originally published in Polish on Onet. We publish a translation here.

“There was war before, but we were less scared then. Now there is no war, and we are more afraid,” Tumso Abdurakhmanov says sitting in a cafe in a Polish city, where he is hiding from the Chechen security services.

A small, dark-haired man, Abdurakhmanov is inconspicuous. He orders coffee with milk and adds a few teaspoons of sugar. He tries the coffee, then adds two more. The only thing that sets Abdurakhmanov out from his surroundings is his characteristic beard.

One day three years ago, this beard changed his life radically: facing persecution by a relative of Chechnya’s authoritarian president Ramzan Kadyrov, Abdurakhmanov was forced to flee his home in the middle of the night. This sent him on a journey that has seen him spend six months in a closed immigration centre in Poland, find himself in the sights of the second most powerful man in Chechnya and, astoundingly, become the most popular YouTuber in his home country.

Abdurakhmanov’s beard might also be responsible for the Polish state sending him back into the hands of Kadyrov’s security services.  

1.

This story begins with an accident on 4 November, 2015. Tumso is driving through cloud-covered Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in his Lada Granta. It is a cheap car suited to the pockets of millions of citizens of the Russian Federation. Like most Chechens, Tumso — a manager at a state telecommunications company — does not make lots of money.

He stops at the traffic lights before an intersection with Putin Avenue, Grozny’s main artery. This is probably the only street in Russia that bears the president’s name — an illustration of what happened to Chechnya under Kremlin-appointed Ramzan Kadyrov. Unexpectedly, a column of government cars comes out onto the road from behind a corner. Tumso reflexively covers his face. His mustache and beard suggest he is a Sunni, while Chechnya’s official religion is Sufism.

This can end in problems.

Tumso drives on the green light, but out of the corner of his eye he notices that the column of cars is turning back. When he stops at the next set of lights, a luxury Mercedes pulls up alongside him. A tinted window rolls down. Behind the wheel sits one of the most recognisable men in Chechnya, and who is believed to be President Kadyrov’s right-hand man.

Despite being 28 years old, the man with the Mercedes has already managed to hold some of the most prominent positions in the country. At the age of 25, he became the youngest mayor of Grozny in history. Later, he was promoted to the position of Vice-President of the Government and Chechnya’s Minister for Property and Land Relations. Now he is the head of the Presidential Administration and Government of Chechnya. He is called Islam Kadyrov, and he is a relative of President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Grozny. CC BY-SA 2.0 Alexxx Malev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.With a wave of the hand, Islam Kadyrov orders Tumso to stop at the side of the road. Abdurakhmanov’s car is surrounded by cars belonging to Kadyrov’s bodyguards. More than a dozen armed men in military uniform exit the cars. They take Tumso’s briefcase and phone, and order him to approach the Mercedes.

According to Abdurakhmanov, this is what happened next:

“You don’t know that you are not allowed this kind of beard here?” Islam Kadyrov asks.

“I haven’t seen any official guidelines,” Tumso says.

“You know it alright. When we passed you, I saw you trying to hide your beard,” Kadyrov replies.

2.

After speaking for an hour on the side of the road, Islam Kadyrov orders his bodyguards to detain Tumso. The guards take him to Islam Kadyrov’s official home nestled in a complex of government buildings. In the kitchen of one of the buildings, Islam Kadyrov is waiting for him. A six-hour “hearing” begins: Islam Kadyrov investigates Tumso’s phone, and finds satirical caricatures, photos and videos ridiculing the Chechen authorities’ policies.

According to Abdurakhmanov, this is what happened next:

“What I found on the phone is enough to kill you,” says Islam. “I am going to Moscow for three days. During this time, you either leave Chechnya or I will kill you. But there is one more option: if you are ready, we will organise a meeting with the Muslim elders. You admit your mistakes and maybe we’ll solve this problem somehow. Until then, I forbid you to cut your beard or tell anyone about this meeting.”

Tumso cannot imagine life outside of Chechnya. He agrees to meet the elders.

3.

Three days later, Islam Kadyrov’s bodyguards pick Tumso up at his home and take him to the same kitchen where he was questioned before. There are some serious figures waiting for him: Magomed Khiytanayev, Grozny’s chief judge and an adviser to the mayor, Adam Shakhidov, an advisor to Ramzan Kadyrov, and Apti Alaudinov, Chechnya’s Minister of Internal Affairs. After photos of two of Tumso’s friends are found on his phone, they are also brought in. One of them is the head of an immunological laboratory, the other a lawyer.

Islam Kadyrov. Source: YouTube. Islam Kadyrov accuses Tumso and his colleagues of being Wahhabists. In today’s Chechnya, this is an extremely serious accusation. In the 1990s, radical Islamic fighters, who were supporting Chechens in the fight against Russia, began to spread this fundamentalist branch of Islam in the country. “Wahhabists” are commonly associated with the anti-Kadyrov and anti-Putin opposition.

None of the men admit to being Wahhabists. They are actually Sunni, but this does not improve their situation. Other religions are considered subversive in Chechnya. During the meeting, the interrogators describe in detail the effects of beating, electric shock torture, as well as the conditions in the local prisons. Representatives of the clergy voice their regret that Tumso will not see his children anymore.

This is their conversation according to Abdurakhmanov:

“He called you a Wahhabi. He’s ashamed of it,” Islam says to one of Tumso’s colleagues.

“We’ll settle this when we get out of here,” his friend replies.

“They think they'll leave here,” an amused Kadyrov says to the other men.

A man enters the room. He holds a polypropylene tube in his hand.

“Leave them with me for 10 minutes,” the man asks Islam. “They’ll admit to everything.”

“It is my house. We can’t beat them here,” Islam objects.

In the end, Islam decides the following:

“When I come back from Moscow again, you will bring me all the members of your sect. We will meet again, but together with President Ramzan Kadyrov. If he decides to kill you, I will kill you. If he decides to put you in prison, I’ll put you in prison. And if he decides to release you, I will free you.”

4.

Tumso is released at three in the morning. A few hours later, he sends his wife and children to Kazakhstan, because that’s the only place they can travel without passports (which they do not have at that moment). Together with his mother and brother, Abdurakhmanov travels to Georgia. They take as much as they can fit in several suitcases. The rest — their flat, car, furniture, personal belongings — stays behind.

The next day police appear at Tumso’s work, interviewing neighbours and acquaintances. Islam Kadyrov sends him a voice message on WhatsApp: “You talked to me like a man. You said we would see each other. I thought your word was the word of a man. A man’s word must be kept. I thought you would keep it. I trusted you, and you betrayed me. God does not leave betrayal unpunished. The betrayal which you committed. You understand this. The earth spins on. We will see each other again some time. Then we’ll talk to each other, face to face.”

In the course of one day, Tumso, an employee of a telecommunications company, has become a wanted criminal. He does not yet know the allegations against him.

5.

But for now Tumso has bigger problems on his mind. It takes two days to find a flat for his mother and brother in Tbilisi. Then he flies to Kazakhstan to find a flat for his wife and children, who are waiting in a hotel. He still hopes that the authorities’ mistake will sort itself out in a month, maybe two at the most. With the hotels, air tickets and apartments, his savings are shrinking at a rapid pace.

There is hope: at the end of December, Tumso receives a call from the head of the police in Grozny, Magomed Dashayev, who promises help in solving the situation if Tumso returns to the country. Tumso wants to return to Chechnya. The family spends New Year’s Eve in a good mood and prepares to return to Grozny.

Georgia recognises that Tumso meets the requirements of necessary to grant him refugee status, but he will not receive it — his presence contradicts the country’s “national interest”

Shortly after New Year, Tumso receives a letter in which he learns that criminal proceedings against him have been opened in Chechnya. A document dated 12 November states that, at the time of his release, Tumso was located “in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic for purposes contrary to the interests of the Russian Federation.”

The issue is that on 12 November, Tumso was somewhere completely different — and he has hard evidence for this. But before he publishes it, he must deal with more important matters. For now, he is a wanted “Islamic terrorist”.

Abdurakhmanov's passport shows that he left Kazakhstan on 12 November 2015, entering Georgia the next day. Source: Personal archive. The document on the criminal case contains the signature of the same Magomed Dashayev who encouraged him to return to Chechnya and promised to solve his case. Tumso writes to the Georgian government requesting to be granted refugee status.

For the next nine months, Abdurakhmanov lives in Tbilisi, waiting for his application to be processed. In October 2016, he receives a very strange answer: Georgia recognises that Tumso meets the requirements of necessary to grant him refugee status, but he will not receive it — his presence contradicts the country’s “national interest”. Why? This letter does not explain.

6.

Abdurakhmanov decides to make his case public. He contacts the Caucasus branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and tells reporters his story. A recording of the program is published online. This is the first publication for a man who, in a few months, will become the most famous YouTuber on the Chechen internet.

Meanwhile, further appeals in Georgia find no success — much like Tumso’s correspondence with prosecutors in Russia and Chechnya.

He decides to present his story in a video. For the first time in his life, Tumso turns on the camera and tells his story, showing documents from Georgia, Russia and Chechnya. Within two days, the movie is watched by 80,000 people on YouTube. For a republic of one million people, it is a significant number.

Indeed, it is significant enough that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Chechen Republic issues a statement on its website: Tumso learns that at their request, Russia has issued an Interpol warrant for him. His case was marked with the highest alert, the so-called “Red Notice”, used in relation to people wanted for serious crimes. The charge: “Participation in an illegal armed organisation”.

Tumso records another film in which he presents clear evidence that on 12 November 2015, when he is accused of being in territory controlled by Islamic State in Syria, he was in a completely different place. In front of the camera, he opens his passport and shows that on 12 November he left his wife, who was staying in Kazakhstan, and flew to Georgia. He did not leave Georgia after 13 November. The Chechen Prosecutor’s Office does not respond to this information, and the Russian Federation does not withdraw the arrest warrant from the Interpol database.

Abdurakhmanov responds to the Chechen Prosecutor's Office via video, February 2017.

Tumso publishes more videos online. Tens of thousands of viewers on YouTube rise to hundreds of thousands, then millions. He becomes the most well-known Chechen Youtuber in Russia. Respected human rights organisations, such as Memorial and the Committee against Torture, come to his defence. He is recognised in a media competition run by Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. He receives a grant from US think tank Freedom House.

However, Georgia maintains its decision to deport him. Tumso will never know why. The explanation is secret. So he starts looking for a country that will harbour him and his family.

7.

Tumso decides on Poland. He cannot enter the Schengen Zone without a visa, but he buys a ticket from Tbilisi to Kaliningrad, with a stopover in Warsaw. On 11 July 2017, Abdurakhmanov lands with his family in Warsaw and, immediately after leaving the plane, approaches a border guard officer, shows him his documents and says: We are refugees.

The next day, the Polish court decides to arrest Tumso for two months. It turns out that Chechnya put him not only on the Interpol list, but also on the Schengen Information System II (SISII), and included a note that he could be armed and dangerous.

The family is placed in a guarded centre for foreigners in the south-eastern city of Przemyśl. After two months, Tumso’s detention is extended for another four months. Together with his wife and three children aged two, four and six, Tumso finds himself in conditions that he did not even experience in Chechnya.

From Tumso’s account:

“Maximum restrictions apply there. There’s no internet. You can walk in the courtyard only at certain times. You can go shopping only twice a week, but not everything can be bought: meat and eggs aren’t allowed. You can’t receive food from relatives. Everyone is counted like sheep five times a day. You can not close the door to your cell, guards can come in at any moment. The attitude of some of them is just awful, they are just like doctors. But the worst thing is the uncertainty. You do not know when they might come for you and hand you over to murderers in Russia.”

Tumso tries to get his name off the Interpol list. Abusing Interpol’s highest-level alert (“Red Notice”) is a common strategy used by authoritarian countries against dissidents. The mechanism is simple:

1. The country fabricates a criminal charge: these charges often relate to terrorism, which Europe and the US are particularly concerned about, or membership of Islamic State.

2. The surname of the person sought is placed in the Interpol database, usually marked with a “Red Notice”.

3. At any border check or air travel, the wanted person can be detained and handed over to the authoritarian state by Western countries.

Over the last decade, the abuse of the Interpol system has rather popular among among authoritarian states:

  • - in 2005, 2,300 surnames were placed in the Interpol database every day and marked under the “Red Notice”;

  • - in 2010: 6,300 names

  • - in 2016: 12,700 names.

After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016, the Erdogan regime sent requests to Interpol to place 60,000 surnames in their databases.

After analysing the documents sent by Abdurakhmanov, Interpol removes him from the list of wanted people. Germany follows, removing Tumso from the Schengen Information System II list. The Russian Federation does not withdraw the arrest warrant for Tumso.

8.

In January 2018, the Abdurakhmanov family is released from the guarded centre in Przemyśl in order to wait for further decisions of the Polish state. They immediately hide in one of the cities in Poland, far from places inhabited by the Chechen community. Tumso knows that he must blend in with the crowd to effectively hide from the kadyrovytsy, Ramzan Kadyrov’s private security force.

On his blog, Abdurakhmanov continues to criticise the Chechen authorities. He talks about arrests, violations of human rights, the public humiliation that people face. His videos gain more viewership than state television in Chechnya.

Tumso knows that the Kadyrov will not forgive him for fighting for his rights. Every Chechen knows the famous recording of President Ramzan Kadyrov, in which he addresses fugitives living abroad directly: “One day, maybe in ten or five years, when you become smarter or when parents tell you to come home or when they chase you out of Europe, you will not have anywhere to go. And then I will make you pay for every word.”

9.

Just after midnight on 23 August 2018, Tumso receives a call from an unknown number. The caller turns out to be Magomed Daudov, chairman of the parliament of the Republic of Chechnya and, after the collapse of Islam Kadyrov’s career, the second most powerful person in the country. In the First Chechen War, Daudov fought against Russia, but in the second conflict he went over to Putin, for which he received the Order of the Hero of Russia. Today, Daudov is one of those people that makes the whole of Chechnya shake. His name is associated with intimidation, beatings and torture. In 2014, Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed that he was involved in the beating and torture of Ruslan Kutayev, a well-known human rights defender and then president of the Caucasian People’s Assembly.

The conversation lasts over three hours. The goal is clear: get Tumso to shut up. For the first 10 minutes, Daudov tries to get Abdurakhmanv to give his address, referring to his honesty and honour. When it doesn’t work, Daudov opts for flattery: “You're a smart guy, we need people like you,” he says. Then he starts making threats.

Ramzan Kadyrov and Magomed Daudov. Source: Instagram. In the end, Tumso agrees to meet Daudov in Poland. “They do not let me into Poland,” Daudov replies. “And do you know why? They do not let me in because people in Poland, how to say it in Chechen, have their own customs. I do not want those customs in Chechnya”.

From the context of the conversation, it appears that Daudov was making a reference to LGBT+ people. Associating Europe with LGBT culture is common in the Russian media. In the programmes of the main state stations, the phrase “Gayropa” is often heard instead of the word “Europe”.

Tumso publishes the conversation in three parts on YouTube. The first becomes the most popular movie on the Russian internet. All three parts have been viewed by over two million people.

10.

Some of the most important human rights organisations in Russia — Memorial and Svetlana Gannushkina’s Civic Assistance Committee — come to Tumso’s defence. They have been monitoring the situation in Chechnya itself and abroad for years. In their letters regarding Tumso’s case, they warn that the fears of persecution facing him and his family are absolutely justified; that his family will become an instrument in the hands of the regime; that the Russia federal authorities “have adopted the medieval principle of collective responsibility”; that “torture, falsification and coming up with criminal cases is a common practice of law enforcement in the Chechen Republic”; that victims are subject to “not only torture, but also extrajudicial executions”.

Human rights defenders warn that the situation in Chechnya, which was already bad, deteriorated further in 2016 and 2017 when “waves of mass detentions, torture in secret prisons, executions” took place. In August 2018, 15 OSCE countries launch the so-called “Vienna Mechanism”, expressing “deep concern about serious violations and violations of human rights in Chechnya”.

11.

In December 2017, the first decision in the matter of Abdurakhmanov and his family is announced. Rafał Rogala, the head of Poland’s Office for Foreigners, refuses them refugee status and subsidiary protection. The Office does not recognise the threat to Tumso, although, in a response to Onet, the Office admits that it is aware of the poor situation in Chechnya from documents presented by the Memorial Association, but still states the opposite in the ruling.

The Office for Foreigners admits that Tumso has a credible alibi against the accusations of the Chechen Prosecutor’s Office. It also admits that this action by the Chechen authorities may be considered persecution. The Office further states, however, that since Tumso has not yet been convicted, there can be no question of persecution. The Office for Foreigners states that Tumso is not in danger of death because “according to the ruling of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation [...] a sentence of capital punishment can not be declared or executed.”

In its decision, the Office for Foreigners does not observe that Tumso has suffered from any persecution at the hands of the Chechen Republic. It also maintains the opinion that the general security situation in Chechnya has improved in recent years, in comparison with when the country was at war. In an email to Onet, the Office states: “There is no general armed conflict in this territory, thus the general security situation has improved.”

12.

Tumso appeals to Poland’s Refugee Council. This body admits that Tumso may face repression in Chechnya for his anti-government videos on YouTube, and that he could be granted refugee status or subsidiary protection as a result. However, the Council does not grant this status, citing the negative opinion of Poland’s domestic counterintelligence service, the Internal Security Agency (ABW). It is unknown why the ABW’s opinion is negative, as it remains secret.

“This is another of many cases in which a foreigner’s right to defend themselves is violated,” says Jacek Białas, a lawyer from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “Previously, there was Ameer Alkhawlany, an Iraqi doctoral student, Ludmila Kozlowska, the Ukrainian head of the Open Dialog Foundation, or Azamat Baiduyev, a Chechen who, after being expelled by Poland, ended up in a Chechen prison. Each of these people was expelled from Poland based on the opinion of the Internal Security Agency, which remained secret not only for the public, but also for people being expelled. These people are unable to address the allegations against them, and their right to defend themselves has been violated. Complete secrecy can lead to abuses of power, and besides, Polish law has been violated. In the case of [Azamat] Baiduyev, there are additional violations because Polish law prohibits the deportation of people to countries where they are threatened with torture and death. And Tumso Abdurakhmanov is facing this.”

“The Refugee Council received an extensive body of evidence from us in favour of Tumso,” says Abdurakhmanov’s attorney from Poland’s Rule of Law Institute, which is dealing with the YouTuber’s case. “But when two weeks before the final decision was issued, we received a note from the ABW, the Council just accepted it without consideration. They relied on this one piece of evidence, which is of dubious quality and which they did not assess. This is a violation of the law.”

Dr Paweł Dąbrowski, chairman of Poland’s Refugee Council, which issued the final decision, says: “Actually, we were moving towards granting Mr Abdurakhmanov refugee status. At the end of our proceedings, the head of the Internal Security Agency sent a letter to the Council, in which he stated that Mr Abdurakhmanov’s presence on the territory of the Republic of Poland posed a threat to state security. The council members have access to classified information, and have read the justification and agreed with the opinion of the Internal Security Agency. At our stage, we have acted accordingly.”

In response, we asked the following question: “You don’t give Tumso the opportunity to address the charges against him because they are secret. Doesn’t this violate his right to defend himself?”

Dr Paweł Dąbrowski: “It is true that Mr Abdurakhmanov could not refer to the letter of the ABW because of its secrecy. It may be the model of many other European countries to consider the introduction of a special procedure in which a special representative is appointed. This representative would not disclose the content of the letter to his client, but he would be able to read it himself and thus defend the client’s interests. In this respect, there is a certain dysfunction of Polish law. This dysfunction can not be removed by the authorities, for example by applying the directive directly.”

Since receiving the Refugee Council’s decision, Tumso has 30 days to leave Poland. But he won’t leave — he has nowhere to go

Andrzej J. Reichelt, who acts as legal counsel to Tumso, claims that the Refugee Council violated not only Polish law, which obliges the Council to participate effectively in asylum proceedings, but also EU law regarding Tumso’s right to defend himself. “There is no doubt about the primacy of EU law over Poland,” he says. “If Polish law is imprecise or contrary to EU law, then EU law should be applied.”

Onet addressed a number of questions to Poland’s Ministry of Interior and Administration. We asked whether the Ministry upholds its opinion on the “good” security situation in Chechnya, or if the Internal Security Agency had contacted the Ministry in connection with the possible expulsion of Tumso Abdurakhmanov, and whether the Ministry is considering expelling him from Poland. The Ministry did not address any of these questions in its reply.

Onet also addressed questions to the Russian Interior Ministry. We have not received an answer.

13.

Tumso is still hiding with his family in Poland. In September, his wife gave birth to a daughter. “I try not to let myself think that I might go to Chechnya,” he says. “I’d prefer to die in Poland at the hands of a Kadyrov hitman than to find myself in their hands. They can do with me what they like there. They can kill me immediately and say that I have hanged myself or can torture me.”

Since receiving the Refugee Council’s decision, Tumso has 30 days to leave Poland. But he won’t leave — he has nowhere to go. Proceedings will be automatically initiated to force him to return to Chechnya. The deportation procedure can be started at any time.

 


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