(New York) – Hollywood stars and other celebrities who attended the Chechen leader’s birthday in Grozny on October 5, 2011, should not keep any money or gifts they may have received, Human Rights Watch said today. Two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, actor Jean Claude Van Damme, and the popular British musician and television personality Vanessa Mae were among celebrities who took part in a multi-million-dollar gala celebration of the restoration of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.
According to official statements, the party was held in honor of the restoration of Grozny, but that is widely believed to be a pretext to celebrate the 35th birthday, also on October 5, of Ramzan Kadyrov, installed by Moscow to govern Chechnya.
“Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a grim record of abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “When stars get paid to turn up to party with him, it trivializes the suffering of countless victims of human rights abuses.”
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 burnings against alleged collaborators, including family members of suspected insurgents.
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 “stars” 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.
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 Swank, Mae, and Van Damme to an email inquiry, sent October 9, regarding the Chechen statement that celebrities were paid for their attendance in Grozny.
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 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 the Grozny celebration, urging them to reconsider their participation. The letter addressed torture allegations against Kadyrov and pointed out how attending such an event would inevitably serve to promote Kadyrov’s authoritarian rule.
“There is no shortage of information about Kadyrov’s terrible human rights record,” Williamson said. “All it takes is a few clicks to find a veritable catalogue of abuse. Celebrities should do better to avoid legitimizing people like Kadyrov and embarrassing themselves.”