After a more than week of worrying whether a prominent Chechen poet and singer – taken from his home by two armed men in black uniforms – was dead or alive, we learned that he’s alive and finally back with his family in Grozny. Khusein Betelgeriev was at home on March 31, 2016, when men came for him, without explanation. For the next 10 days, nothing was known of his fate and whereabouts. Many thought him dead. It’s a tremendous relief to finally confirm he’s among the living, though badly beaten. I wish I could tell you how I know, and tell you the details, but if I do, Betelgeriev and others will suffer even more.
That’s how it works in Chechnya today.
From what we know, Betelgeriev’s captors and torturers were Chechen law enforcement officials. He was punished for not praising the ruthless head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and for expressing himself freely on social media about a broad range of issues, including by mourning the loss of Chechnya’s short-lived independence. His free thinking and lack of servility also seem to have something to do with his sudden dismissal last year from Grozny University, where he had been teaching French for years.
For close to a decade, Ramzan Kadyrov has been running Chechnya like his own private fiefdom, brutally eradicating all forms of dissent. In practice, Kadyrov’s orders are the only law in Chechnya and those who disagree with his policies face terrible repercussions if they dare go public with even the slightest criticism. With elections for Chechnya’s leadership scheduled for September, local authorities have been on a rampage, viciously and comprehensively cracking down on those whose loyalty they deem questionable.
Two Chechen social commentators, Aslambek Didiev and Rizvan Ibraghimov, disappeared around the same time as Betelgeriev, under very similar circumstances. They appeared on Chechen television several days later humbly apologizing for their “flawed” theories and publications. Several months earlier, an ordinary middle-aged woman who dared complain about extortion by local officials was forced to apologize to Ramzan Kadyrov on television for her supposed “lies.” Around the same time, a video surfaced of a young Chechen blogger who had made some critical comments about local and federal authorities. In the video, he was half naked, begging forgiveness.
These and other similar cases send a clear signal to Chechen society: Keep your mouth shut except to exhibit your utmost devotion. If not, get ready to be publicly humiliated, hurt, beaten, and even “disappeared.” Meanwhile, Kadyrov continues to enjoy the Kremlin’s full support, which sends just as clear a signal to him and his team: You can keep it up with full impunity; we will do nothing to protect the victims and assert the rule of law in Chechnya.