A Wolf in Security Officer’s Clothing

No one knows the identities of the five men who abducted and murdered relief workers Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov on August 11. But Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is apparently certain that they were separatists.

Bandits… trying to create an environment of general fear and suspicion to get society to stop working together to rebuild the republic,” he said Friday.

Kadyrov noted that Dzhabrailov had once been a member of a militant group before serving four years in jail and leaving the resistance. His former compatriots may have thus wanted him dead as a result of some “blood feud.”

Hence, continued Kadyrov, the  operations against the militants will intensify and the killers will be found. It “will be a matter of personal honor.”

But Alexander Cherkasov of Russian nonprofit group Memorial places his suspicions somewhere else: on Chechnya’s security services. He told the Moscow News on Monday that he saw an “obvious” link between the five abductors and Chechen law enforcement.

Cherkasov explains that according to eyewitnesses, the men “politely” identified themselves as members of security. And in fact, three of them were wearing security fatigues. More curious, all five had their faces uncovered uncovered—one typically expects terrorists, like anyone operating outside the law, to conceal their identities behind masks.

“They were without masks, and relatively polite,” said Cherkasov. “It seemed like they were being taken away only for a chat.”

Cherkasov is not the only nonprofit worker to implicate Chechnya’s supposedly lawful government. Tatiana Lokshina, the deputy head of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told Al Jazeera that the investigation into the killings will have no credibility unless it is controlled by the Kremlin and administered by federal investigators, not by local servicemen: “The possibility of involvement of local officials in the killing cannot be excluded at all.”

It would seem shocking that security personnel would have seen fit to dispatch two relief workers who by every account were expressly nonpolitical: The two operated a shelter and treatment center for traumatized children; they were in the business of helping Chechens, not of challenging Russia or trying to replace Kadyrov.

This is a simple public-service organization, the type a fledgling government typically likes to see. Is there anyone in Chechen law enforcement who would see fit to do harm to it?

There are. Enter the “kontraktniki.” Since the 1990s, Russia’s military forces have increasingly supplemented their enlisted troops with contract fighters who bear arms for hire. Most are unemployed former policemen and security guards.

A former Russian soldier shared with the Kavkaz Center his memories of fighting alongside these “kontraktniki,” as they were called. By his account, even conscripts hated them, and understandably so. They were usually drunk, loved to use hard drugs, and reveled in indiscriminate violence and murder far above and beyond the call of duty: kidnapping and torturing young children, shooting innocent bystanders for no reason, and even brutalizing their fellow Russian soldiers. When kontraktniki were on patrol, no one was safe.

Al Jazeera notes that since Russia’s official end of operations in Chechnya last April, Russian military units have largely pulled out.  Russian police and “special units,” however, remain. Translation: The professionals have gone home; the undisciplined and underpaid amateurs stay around.

Given this problematic situation, Alexeyava’s next observation on the double murder is food for thought: “It just shows that anyone whose position allows them a gun can kill whoever they like.”

Perhaps even kill members of an apolitical relief organization? Why not? They would have had an excuse in Dzhabrailov’s onetime ties to militants. Perhaps he knew something, they would reason. Take him in to question him. Take Sadulayeva along, too—they could torture her to loosen him up if he gets uncooperative.

Or maybe the kontraktniki would have had no specific need to seize Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov at all. Perhaps the two were only convenient targets that they chose for no reason except to make an example of them.

As Alexayava noted further after the murders, “The climate for civic society workers in Chechnya today is absolutely intolerable. Unless the perpetrators are brought to justice, one really cannot do independent reporting of human rights work in the region on the ground.”

And that—a republic with no NGOs on the ground to call out the government or the security services on their abuses—would be a dream scenario for the likes of the kontraktniki and the Kadyrov government.

Of course, Kadyrov has every incentive to step up operations against separatists following this double murder. But if he is serious about ascertaining Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov’s killers, then he might also want to take a hard look at his own personnel. Time will tell if he does, and if his “personal honor” is worth anything at all.

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