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Opinion Congress makes a move against Russia’s worst human rights abuser

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, right, looks at a military vehicle in Gudermes, east of Chechen regional capital Grozny, southern Russia, in February. (Musa Sadulayev/AP)

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that aims to bring at least a measure of accountability for the organizers of Russia’s most high-profile political assassination, the February 2015 murder of opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. “It’s been four years since his death, but there’s been no proper investigation of his assassination and the coverup and zero accountability for those responsible,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said on the floor before the vote. “That’s certainly an outrage.”

H. Res. 156, which passed 416 to 1 (with Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, as the sole nay), “condemns [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his regime for targeting political opponents and covering up the assassination of Boris Nemtsov” and lists steps to be taken by the U.S. government to counter the impunity of those behind the murder. They include supporting the oversight process recently launched at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, preparing a report on the circumstances of the assassination, and sanctioning those responsible under the Magnitsky Act.

The most hard-hitting measure was introduced as an amendment from Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a freshman congressman and former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Clause 7 of the resolution urges the secretary of state “to investigate the business activities of [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov and any entities controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov outside the Russian Federation.” The congressman made clear which countries he wants to see scrutinized above all: the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. “This is the first time that we are publicly drawing attention to Kadyrov’s business ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Malinowski said in an interview before the vote.

In December 2017, the Treasury Department sanctioned Kadyrov as a gross human rights abuser under the Magnitsky Act. Explaining its decision, the Treasury Department stated that “Kadyrov oversees an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings” and that “one of Kadyrov’s political opponents was believed to have been murdered at Kadyrov’s direction.”

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That was something of an understatement. Several of Kadyrov’s enemies have turned up dead — not just in Grozny, but also in Moscow, Vienna and Dubai. The 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the 2009 kidnapping and murder of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova have also been linked to Kadyrov. In 2011, a Moscow court rejected Kadyrov’s libel lawsuit against Oleg Orlov, the head of Russia’s Memorial human rights organization, who had openly accused the Chechen leader of being behind Estemirova’s murder. Human rights groups and international organizations have documented the widespread practice of enforced disappearances, torture and “honor killings” in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, with the strongman reportedly participating in some acts of torture personally.

Days after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, five Chechens were arrested and charged with his murder; they were later found guilty and sentenced to various prison terms. The convicted gunman, Lt. Zaur Dadayev, had served under Kadyrov’s command in a Chechnya-based battalion of the Russian Interior Ministry. Kadyrov publicly referred to him as a “true patriot” — while calling Nemtsov “an enemy of Russia.” Another Kadyrov associate, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, was nearly indicted as an organizer in the Nemtsov assassination — until Russia’s top law enforcement official personally vetoed the attempt. Numerous requests by lawyers representing the Nemtsov family to have Kadyrov questioned were denied by the investigators and the courts. The Chechen leader enjoys the full protection of the Russian state. Ten days after the assassination of Nemtsov, Putin awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, one of Russia’s highest civilian decorations.

The moves by Western countries to counter Kadyrov’s impunity with visa and financial sanctions had profound symbolic importance. Their practical effect, however, was limited by the fact that Kadyrov had no interests and no presence in the democracies of Europe and North America.

The Middle East, however, is a different matter. Kadyrov’s Instagram feed is filled with reports of his frequent visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These three countries are now reported to be the largest investors in Chechnya. UAE investments alone total more than $350 million, with funding for airports, hotels, shopping malls and skyscrapers. Kadyrov’s relationship with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has been described as a “blossoming friendship.” He has also met on several occasions with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.

Close ties with Arab monarchies have benefited not only Kadyrov’s regime but also his own pocket. A recent report by Transparency International showed that the Chechen leader made nearly $1 million in winnings from his racehorses in the UAE (none of it reported on his government declarations). These profits could well be considered “significant transactions” that would merit secondary sanctions against those who facilitate them under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Kadyrov’s initial reaction to the passage of H. Res. 156 echoed his earlier swagger: He has written that he does “not care in the least about the decisions of the U.S. Congress.” If the will of the House translates into executive action, however, the Chechen strongman could soon lose quite a lot of his customary brashness.

Read more:

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