American actress Hilary Swank attends a ceremony to mark the 35th birthday of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the capital Grozny on October 5, 2011.

© Reuters 2011

(New York) – Celebrities who attended Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday celebration on October 5, 2011, should follow Hilary Swank’s example and not keep any money or gifts they may have received for showing up, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 13, Swank, the two-time Oscar-winning actress, issued a statement expressing regret for attending the event, and on October 14 she said she would give the money she received for attending the event to charity.

Official statements said that the multi-million-dollar gala was to celebrate the restoration of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, after the end of two armed conflicts there. But the event was widely believed to be a pretext to celebrate Kadyrov’s 35th birthday, also on October 5. Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader, was installed by Moscow and has been linked to serious human rights abuses.

“Hilary Swank has said that she will not keep the money, and that’s the right thing to do,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It sends a message that stars need to do more research about the events they attend, so that they do not profit from celebrating human rights abusers while damaging their own reputations.”

The actor Jean Claude Van Damme, the popular British musician and television personality Vanessa Mae, and the singer Seal also took part in the Grozny event.

Swank’s statements followed a broad public outcry about celebrities’ presence at the event.  

Human Rights Watch sent emails on September 29 and 30 to Mae’s management requesting confirmation of the media reports about her plans to attend the celebration. The emails described abuses associated with Kadyrov’s leadership. Human Rights Watch also sent an email to the publicist for Swank on September 29. There was no response to any of the emails. Human Rights Watch is also waiting for a response from representatives for Mae, Van Damme, and Seal to email inquiries sent October 9 and 10 regarding the Chechen statement that celebrities were paid for their attendance in Grozny.

A Chechen Culture Ministry employee who was involved in preparations for the event told Caucasian Knot, a Russian internet news service, that all of the celebrities who attended received an honorarium. The official did not say how much they were paid, only that the celebrities’ demands were “nothing out of the ordinary.” Human Rights Watch said that if the celebrities were paid to attend, they should not keep the money.

Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya since 2006, presides over law enforcement and security agencies that have been implicated in abductions, torture, and executions of those suspected of involvement in the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya. He has condoned collective punishment such as house burningsagainst alleged collaborators, including family members of suspected insurgents.

A Chechen refugee who had filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights claiming that Kadyrov personally tortured him was murdered in Austria in 2009 by people who Austrian prosecutors contended had close links to Kadyrov. The refugee, Umar Israilov, had been granted political asylum after refusing to cede to demands by Kadyrov’s emissaries to withdraw the complaint.

Kadyrov has also praised violent attacks against women who refused to wear headscarves in public places, has said openly that he considers women inferior to men, and that he considers it women’s duty to obey men and keep themselves covered. He also routinely brands as “enemies” human rights defenders and those who investigate human rights abuses. The law enforcement and security agencies under his de facto control are likely to be implicated in several murders of activists and whistle blowers, including that of Natalia Estemirova, a leading Chechen human rights defender, who was kidnapped in Grozny and killed in July 2009.

Five days before the Grozny event, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a nongovernmental legal organization based in Berlin, published an open letter to celebrities reported to be planning to attend, urging them to reconsider. The letter addressed torture allegations against Kadyrov and pointed out how attending such an event would inevitably serve to promote Kadyrov’s authoritarian rule.