Photo Gallery: The Long Reach of a Chechen Strongman


'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.

The Failure of Austrian Authorities to Grant Protection

Kadyrov's henchmen tracked down the "risk factor" in May 2008. A Chechen who identified himself as the businessman Artur Kurmakayev contacted Israilov. Kurmakayev, who had been in prison in Germany from 2003 to 2006 for extortion and coercion, apparently came right to the point in their first meeting. According to the Austrian investigators, he offered to give Israilov the telephone number of Kadyrov and told him that if he apologized to Kadyrov and withdrew his complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, all would be forgotten. Apparently Kurmakayev also gave Israilov a piece of advice: that he ought to think of his family. Several meetings followed, and in one meeting, which apparently took place in a Vienna mosque, Israilov and Kurmakayev, both armed, allegedly threatened each other. On one occasion, Israilov recorded their conversation. In the recording, Kurmakayev claimed that he had spoken directly with Kadyrov and then said:

"Talk to him. You deportation papers are ready. In this type of situation -- perhaps not today or tomorrow, but in a month or two -- you will definitely be deported. Your family will stay here, but you will be deported. Ramzan doesn't want you to end up with the FSB (the Russian domestic intelligence agency). And I wouldn't want that, either, if I were you. If we can settle all of this with you on the phone today, talk to you without any harm being done to your loved ones and your family…"

But Kurmakayev's attempts to convince Israilov failed, and on June 9, 2008 he received new instructions: to "take care of things." Was it an order to commit murder? It was, at least in the eyes of Kurmakayev, who revealed everything to authorities in Vienna on June 10:

"I work for the president of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. My boss is the president's right-hand man … In late April or early May, I received instructions from President Kadyrov to find the individual Umar Israilov … and bring him home … Kadyrov's right-hand man called me yesterday … and then he connected me to President Kadyrov, who told me that the situation had changed and that Israilov was no longer needed in Chechnya, and that I should do as I wished ... but that I had to decide what to do about the problem on my own … I don't want to break the law… I'm not a murderer…"

To No Avail

During those summer days in 2008, the Austrian authorities should have immediately recognized that a matter they had treated as routine until then had become urgent. Kurmakayev's statements should have set off the alarm bells, particularly given that Israilov's close associates had begun asking the authorities for protection. But to no avail.

It was then that the case finally became a political issue, as friends of the hunted man tried to bring down the hunter. On June 13, 2008, they filed a criminal complaint against Kadyrov. He was reportedly planning to travel to Austria to attend two of the Russian team's matches at the European Football Championship. Israilov's attorney filed a petition for an arrest warrant, but she was sent from one office to the next. No one was willing to accept her petition, and an arrest warrant was never issued.

Instead, on June 19, the police arrested Kurmakayev. He described his life in the underground and told the authorities that he had been involved in several "missions," some of them in Germany.

The minutes of the session say a lot about the Austrian interrogators: "You are clean-shaven and are wearing clean clothes. How can you explain this?" A clean Chechen was apparently something beyond the imagination of the Austrian police detectives. The next day, they put him on a flight to Moscow. The recently-released investigators' report states that Kurmakayev is now presumably dead.

But he was apparently only one of many in Kadyrov's network. The others remained active and the authorities did nothing to protect Israilov. On July 8, 2008, his attorney wrote a letter requesting personal security for Israilov, but it too was not granted. By then, the Chechen hit men had apparently long since located Israilov.

Darkened Windows

But even Israilov had no idea how many Chechen expatriates in Vienna were in contact with Kadyrov. The investigators analyzed countless mobile phone calls, evidence at the murder scene and statements by other Chechens. Much of the information pointed to Kadyrov and to trips Chechen expatriates had made to meet with the strongman in Grozny.

According to the investigation, a Chechen living in Vienna under the assumed name Otto Kaltenbrunner made several trips to Grozny before the murder. He had co-founded a cultural society in St. Pölten near Vienna, a meeting place for Chechen expatriates. But in reality, investigators believe, he was not interested in culture and tradition, but in setting up "a covert campaign" to acquire information about former fellow Chechens.

The investigators believe Kaltenbrunner served as the "contact to Kadyrov," and that he was responsible for the "logistical organization" of the Jan. 13, 2009 killing. On that day, two cars were driven to Israilov's address: a green Volvo with darkened windows registered in Kaltenbrunner' name, and a red Opel Astra. Israilov walked out of the Eurospar supermarket at around noon, and the deadly shots were fired soon afterwards. Using their mobile phones, two passersby photographed the killers as they ran through the streets, still holding their guns. They got into the Volvo minutes later.

Press Denial

When the police found Kaltenbrunner's car, the green Volvo, a short time later, it contained a plastic bag that had been made into a gag and disposable gloves, items the investigators referred to as tools for an "abduction and imminent delivery to a foreign power." The agents also found an important piece of evidence in the memory of Kaltenbrunner's mobile phone: several photos of him embracing Kadyrov.

Three presumed killers are still in custody today. Kaltenbrunner denies all involvement. Kadyrov, on the other hand, according to the file, "could not be questioned in the matter, but he did announce in the press that he had absolutely nothing to do with the murder."

That Jan. 13 did not mark the end of this dramatic political crime story. Israilov has been buried, but even as a dead man, he is still a "risk factor" for Kadyrov. Even without an arrest warrant against the Chechen president, the trial will likely turn into a tribunal for the ruler of Grozny.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan