Lecha Islamov, a Chechen gangster and former rebel guerrilla commander now serving a ten-year prison sentence, died on April 21 after having been hospitalized in Volgograd with a mysterious illness, the Gzt.ru website reported on April 23. Sources close to the convict told the online newspaper Vremya novostei that they suspect he may have been poisoned by Russia’s security agencies.
During the Soviet period Islamov headed a criminal gang in Moscow. In 1995 he returned to Chechnya to take part in the war for independence; the FSB captured him four years ago. According to the April 21 Vremya novostei account, it is thought that Islamov may have been in possession of sensitive information about the relations between the Chechen criminal world and the Russian police. For example, it was said during his trial that an official of Ingushetia’s interior ministry visited a place where Islamov’s gang was holding kidnap victims.
Islamov’s symptoms – including hair loss and massive blisters – were said to be inexplicable to the doctors who have been trying to treat him. According to Vremya novostei, the symptoms resembled those that were seen in the Duma deputy Yury Shchekochikhin shortly before his mysterious death last year.
As Gzt.ru reminded its readers, Islamov is not the first rebel field commander to have died in captivity. For example, Salman Raduev and Turpal-Ali Atgeriev died mysteriously while in prison in 2002.
Vyacheslav Izmailov, military correspondent for Novaya gazeta, wrote in an April 26 article for that newspaper that the FSB tried several times while Islamov was in prison to recruit him as an agent. The last of those attempts apparently took place just last month, on March 12, when three FSB officers visited him in prison and offered him immediate release if he would agree to cooperate. He refused this offer just as he had rejected previous attempts.
According to an April 23 account on the Grani.ru website, unnamed relatives of Islamov said that he had told them his jailers summoned him several days before his death for an “informal conversation,” during which he was given a snack with tea. By the relatives’ account, he began to feel ill within five minutes, as he was being taken back to his cell.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice insisted that Islamov died of purely natural causes.