Human Rights Groups Press Austria to Investigate Murder of Chechen

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 3

Interfax reported on January 15 that leading human rights groups had called on Austrian authorities to investigate the January 13 murder in Vienna of Umar Israilov, a 27-year-old former Chechen rebel who surrendered and briefly served as a bodyguard to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov before fleeing Chechnya for Europe. Israilov later said he had filed a complaint against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights alleging “systematic use of abductions and torture” by Kadyrov and his security forces to punish suspected insurgents and their families during 2003-2005. Israilov described to the New York Times several of the allegations he had made to the Strasbourg court, including the beating and kicking of detainees by Kadyrov and his fighters, the rape of a detainee by one of Kadyrov’s subordinates and Kadyrov’s use of a hand-cranked device that delivered electric shocks to prisoners (North Caucasus Weekly, January 15).

Interfax quoted a press release issued by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Russia’s Memorial human rights group on January 15 as saying that Israilov had complained to the Austrian police a few days before his murder that he was being followed. The press release quoted Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch as saying that human rights activists are familiar with Israilov’s case and view his claims of torture as fully credible.

The Associated Press on January 16 quoted Human Rights Watch as urging Russian and Austrian authorities to investigate Israilov’s murder. Tatyana Lokshina at the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch told the Associated Press an “urgent and detailed” investigation is needed to bring Israilov’s killers to justice and called on authorities to ensure the safety of Israilov’s pregnant wife and three children who remain in Austria. “Israilov is not the only critic of the Chechen leadership to die or disappear,” Lokshina told the news agency.

According to the Associated Press, the Vienna public prosecutor’s office said it had no proof that Israilov was killed by a hit man or that the killing was political. The office said Austrian police had detained a 40-year-old man of Chechen origin in whose car the killers escaped, but the man denied any involvement.

In addition, the Associated Press reported that a lawyer in Vienna released a statement purportedly from Israilov’s father, saying his son joined the Chechen insurgency in 2001, detained in 2003 and tortured by Kadyrov and others. The news agency quoted Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the Memorial human rights group as saying she interviewed Israilov in Austria, and that he told her he had offered to work for Kadyrov in return for amnesty after being subjected to torture over several months.

Chechen government spokesman Lyoma Gadaev told the Associated Press that he did not recall “a bodyguard named Israilov near Ramzan Kadyrov,” adding that there “are many cases when people flee abroad and make up various statements just to get asylum.” Sokiryanskaya said Israilov fled to Austria in 2003, and Chechen authorities detained and tortured his father for ten months. According to the Associated Press, the statement from his father said both he and Umar fled Chechnya in 2004.

Reuters on January 15 quoted Austrian state prosecutor Gerhard Jarosch as telling a news conference that Israilov, who had been granted political asylum in Austria, had told authorities that he thought he was being followed. But Jarosch said there was currently no evidence suggesting that the killers were hired or politically motivated.

“A political background (for the murder) is something we are considering, but we need proof,” Jarosch said. “So far we don’t have any. There are many possible motives for a murder.” He said that the owner of the car in which Israilov’s killers escaped, an asylum seeker also from Chechnya, was arrested on January 13 and that police were still searching for the killers.

A spokeswoman for the European Court of Human Rights confirmed to Reuters that Israilov had filed a complaint against Russia in 2006 but added that the application was not completed and the court could therefore not disclose details of the original complaint.

Meanwhile, in a statement posted on the Chechenpress website on January 15, Akhmed Zakaev, the London-based prime minister of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), criticized the European Union for failing to protect “ChRI citizens” living in Europe from Russia’s special services. Zakaev cited the murder of former ChRI president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar in February 2004, the radioactive poisoning death of the dissident and former Russian special services officer, Aleksandr Litvinenko, in London in November 2006, the murder of former Chechen rebel field commander Islam Dzhanibekov in Istanbul last December (North Caucasus Weekly, December 18) and the murder of Umar Israilov in Vienna.

“We believe that the Austrian authorities, which granted political asylum to Umar Israilov and his family and guaranteed the security of his residence on their territory, will do their best to bring to justice the perpetrators and masterminds of this crime, regardless of who stands behind it,” Zakaev said. He added that the ChRI government is in “close contact” with the Austrian authorities and would launch its own investigation of Israilov’s murder.