(Vienna) - The conviction of three men on June 1, 2011, in the fatal kidnapping attempt of a Chechen refugee in Vienna is a good beginning in the effort to uncover all those responsible in this case, Human Rights Watch said today. Police evidence gathered during the Austrian investigation indicated a link between the killing and the Chechen leadership, but the Russian authorities have failed to respond to judicial requests to question key witnesses who are based in Russia.
The refugee, Umar Israilov, died as a result of gunshot wounds inflicted by his assailants during the bungled kidnapping attempt in Vienna on January 13, 2009.
"We are obviously pleased that this verdict provides some justice for Israilov and his family, but this is not the end of this case," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Real justice means tracing the links between Israilov's murder and Chechnya."
The Viennese Criminal Court handed down sentences ranging from 16 years to life for murder, attempted abduction to a foreign power, and creation of a criminal organization.
Israilov had been detained in 2003 in Chechnya as a rebel fighter, was freed under an amnesty, and then briefly served in security services headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, who is now the Moscow-backed Chechen leader.
In a New York Times interview with Israilov, published just after his murder, Israilov was quoted as saying that during his detention Kadyrov had tortured him, including using electric shocks. Israilov was also quoted as saying that he had witnessed beating, kicking, and other torture of detainees by Kadyrov and his subordinates.
The indictment in the Vienna case points to the Chechnya link, saying that the goal of the crime was "to attack Umar ISRAILOV, thereby threatening his life and freedom. He was to be kidnapped and taken out of Austria, where he was to be handed over to the authorities of the Russian republic of Chechnya. If the plan could not be carried out, murder was seen as an alternative."
In his closing statement in Vienna, the prosecutor called the case a "political murder." The indictment also says that in the summer of 2008, Israilov was approached by a man who said he was sent by Kadyrov and who threatened harm to Israilov and his family if he did not withdraw the case about his torture that he had submitted to the European Court of Human Rights and return to Chechnya. Shortly thereafter the man, Artur Kurmakaev, told Viennese police that Kadyrov had "ordered him to find Israilov and to return him." Kurmakaev was eventually detained in Austria and deported - allegedly voluntarily - to Russia in June 2008.
"There is every possibility that Israilov was targeted because he accused the Chechen leader of torture," Williamson said. "And Israilov is only one of a number of people who have been killed after they exposed abuses in Chechnya."
For years, the Russian human rights group Memorial, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have documented human rights violations by pro-Kremlin Chechen forces under Kadyrov's de facto control, in the context of Chechnya's counter-insurgency campaign. Despite these repeated allegations and reports, the Russian government has taken no meaningful steps to investigate them.
In recent years several people have been abducted in Chechnya after they exposed human rights abuses there. Among them was Natalia Estemirova, the leading researcher on Chechnya for Memorial, who was abducted and murdered in July 2009.
In both January and March 2011, the Viennese Criminal Court asked Russia's prosecutor general to facilitate the questioning of five key witnesses in the case, including Kadyrov and Kurmakaev. The others include Lecha Bogatirov, whom court documents identified as the gunman, and Shaa Turlaev, a close associate of Kadyrov.
The Russian prosecutor's office did not respond to the requests.
"This case should have prompted Russia to investigate thoroughly any involvement in killing by the Chechen leadership, and to get to the bottom of years of serious human rights violations in Chechnya," Williamson said. "There is no sign, though, that Russia has done anything. Now it's up to the Austrian authorities to press Russia to find out the whole truth."