'Risk Factor' Murder in Vienna Leads Investigators to Chechen President

In January 2009, an asylum seeker from Chechnya was gunned down in front of a supermarket in Vienna. Austrian investigators now say that their inquiries have led them to suspect that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov may have been behind the slaying. Their findings could strain relations between Europe and Russia.



When Umar Israilov left the Eurospar supermarket on Leopoldauerstrasse in Vienna at around noon on Jan. 13, 2009, he must have realized his life was at stake. He immediately twisted up and hurled a full shopping bag into the face of a man who was lying in wait for him outside.

Just a few seconds later, and a few meters further, it was over. Two men with drawn pistols pursued him and fired on Israilov as he tried to run away. After being hit several times, he collapsed, but the two men continued firing their guns. One man even beat him with the butt of his pistol.

Israilov, a 27-year-old Russian citizen of Chechen origin and an applicant for asylum in Austria, died on the way to the hospital.

The murder, committed in broad daylight, triggered a wave of outrage and attracted international attention. And now it could very well harm Europe's relationship with Russia.

More than one-and-a-half years after the murder, the Vienna Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism has reached the end of its investigation. It believes that an ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, was behind the killing. In their dossier, the investigators identify "Kadyrov, Ramzan" as one of the "instigators," and the investigators conclude that Kadyrov knew about and accepted the killing. The allegations suggest that a man who owes his position of power to Moscow's support may have ordered a contract killing in the middle of Europe.

'Serious Human Rights Violation'

The investigators cast a wide net. In addition to looking into the actual crime, they included a complaint filed against Kadyrov by the Society for Threatened Peoples, as well as torture allegations Israilov had made against Kadyrov before the European Court of Human Rights. Legal experts like Manfred Nowak, the director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights in Vienna, are calling for consequences. It is "time to issue an international arrest warrent" against Kadyrov, says Nowak. "We have enough evidence of Kadyrov's direct involvement in serious human rights violations, including torture."

There are precedents for such far-reaching investigations. When three people died in the 1986 bombing of the La Belle nightclub in Berlin, investigators speculated that the Libyan government was behind the attack. Libya, though, was isolated in the international community. Russia, on the other hand, is a major power and a partner of the European Council.

Will the Austrian government pick a fight with Moscow? Prosecutors in Vienna, working in coordination with the Justice Ministry, are now reviewing the investigators' report. Although the institution of legal proceedings against Kadyrov would be mostly symbolic, it would represent a "form of atonement" for the "dramatic failure of the authorities," says Florian Klenk of the Vienna-based magazine Falter.

The tragic account of the murder is described in a report that is hundreds of pages long. "Not enough was done to protect Israilov," says his attorney, Nadja Lorenz. On the other hand, it wasn't easy for the authorities to find their bearings in the Chechen expatriate community. About 20,000 Chechen refugees live in Austria, including members of the political resistance against President Kadyrov, committed democrats and dangerous Islamists. It is a microcosm of the chaos in their native Chechnya.

Brutality and Disappearances

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the power struggle in the Caucasus republic has been ongoing. Ramzan Kadyrov, 33, has been president of Chechnya since 2007; his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004, held the same office. Putin even decorated the younger Kadyrov with the country's highest order when he presented him with the "Hero of the Russian Federation" award for "courage and heroism shown in the discharge of duties."

For years, various human rights organizations have denounced this "hero" for his alleged brutality. They hold him responsible for the disappearances of people in Chechnya and the executions of many of his opponents. His alleged victims have included one his sharpest critics, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006, and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted and killed last July. Four months later, Sulim Yamadayev, a former Chechen rebel commander, was shot and killed in Dubai.

No one has ever managed to prove Kadyrov's involvement in these acts of revenge. But prosecutors finally had a potential star witness in Umar Israilov, who had fled from Chechnya in 2004. He was a former member of the feared security service headed by Kadyrov. Israilov claimed that he had been forced to serve in this unit.

The statements Israilov made to authorities in Vienna are horrific. They can be found in the criminal complaints he filed with the public prosecutor's office in Vienna and in the European Court of Human Rights. According to the first complaint, filed in 2006, Israilov was tortured by Kadyrov himself in 2003. An excerpt reads as follows:

"At the gym, Ramzan Kadyrov showed me a device that included a crank, and he told me that he had just received it and was going to try it out on me. Kadyrov's bodyguards forced me to sit on one of the exercise machines and attached a cable to my ear … Then Kadyrov began turning the crank and hit me with an electric shock …"

All the More Credible

Israilov had burn marks from the electroshocks on his legs and his lip, and a forensic report confirmed his account. Word of his accusations, which the forensic report had made all the more credible, eventually reached Chechnya.

Meanwhile Kadyrov, in response to pressure from Moscow, was trying to shed his image as a president with a predilection for torture. In interviews, he talked himself up as a friend of all Chechens and claimed that he would welcome the return of Chechen expatriates. But this invitation was always attached to threats against those who, as he put it, were living "without honor" in the West.

Kadyrov tried to catch his enemies with the help of international arrest warrants. Moscow also pressed for the extradition of supposed terrorists, including Israilov, who was accused of murdering two agents and four members of the presidential guard while fleeing Chechnya. But arrest warrants originating in Russia have often proved to be manipulated. Western countries routinely turned down Moscow's extradition requests, and the Austrians also refused to hand over Israilov.

To overcome these obstacles, Kadyrov chose a different approach to rounding up refractory expatriates. Western intelligence officials confirm that Kadyrov launched a "major campaign to bring them back to Chechnya."

Lists of wanted Chechen expatriates were posted on the Internet. According to Vienna's Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the strongman of Grozny set up a "military intelligence service for a foreign country." Its purpose was to locate those applying for asylum abroad. Kadyrov had apparently set his sights on one man, in particular: Israilov, a "risk factor for Kadyrov and his thugs," as the Austrian investigators write.


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