Critics have dismissed claims that the plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic was hatched in Chechnya. Even as Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov was honoured by Moscow yesterday, critics said the investigation into the killing of Boris Nemtsov was designed to distract from the Kremlin’s alleged role in the killing outside Red Square.
The investigation into the shooting on 27 February led to the arrests of five ethnic Chechens over the weekend. Among those detained were Anzor Gubashev and Zaur Dadayev. They have been charged with murder.
Mr Kadyrov responded to the arrests by claiming Mr Dadayev was a pious Muslim and a “true patriot”. Mr Kadyrov’s theory, also ventured by Moscow, was that Mr Nemtsov had been killed over his condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January.
The Chechen leader was honoured by Mr Putin, named as a recipient of the Order of Honour for his achievements in public life. But the head of the Chechen republic has been widely criticised by human rights groups for violence against dissidents. He has, however, earned gratitude from Mr Putin for his vehement loyalty.
Mr Putin’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was a “coincidence” that Mr Kadyrov received the honour shortly after Mr Nemtsov’s murder.
Mairbek Vatchagayev, an expert on Chechen affairs at the Jamestown Foundation and a former official for the Chechen republic of Ichkeria, scoffed at the notion of Mr Kadyrov’s involvement in the killing of Mr Nemtsov. Mr Vatchagayev said Mr Kadyrov would never “set up Putin, and especially not so brazenly, practically underneath Mr Putin’s office window”.
“I think the Islamist theory of the killing is the weakest idea investigators have provided,” Mr Vatchagayev said. “I think this whole theory is just meant to cover up the authorities’ involvement in [Mr] Nemtsov’s murder, even if that involvement was indirect.”
Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician and former colleague of Mr Nemtsov, said: “The circumstances of the arrests of the suspected Chechens gives me that feeling that the ‘Chechen connection’ is just a cover, and a clumsily executed one.”
Sofia Rubatskaya, a lawyer for three of the five suspects, said that investigators had no hard evidence to prove the suspects’ guilt, and that one of the men could provide an alibi. Ms Rubatskaya said she would file an appeal over the decision to keep the suspects in custody.
“Our worst fears are coming true,” Ilya Yashin, the co-leader of Nemtsov’s small liberal opposition party, responded. “The trigger man will be blamed, while those who actually ordered Nemtsov’s killing will go free. Investigators’ nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov’s killing suits the Kremlin and takes Putin out of the line of fire.”
Mr Nemtsov, 55, was shot in the back four times as he walked home with his girlfriend within sight of the Kremlin. Mr Dadayev is a former deputy commander of a Chechen police battalion which fought Islamist rebels in the region, where Russia has waged two wars to defeat separatists since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In his comments after the arrests, Mr Kadyrov also praised a man called Beslan Shavanov as a “brave warrior”. Russian reports cited unnamed sources as saying a man by that name was also a suspect in the Nemtsov case, but had killed himself with a grenade after police blocked his apartment in Chechnya’s capital Grozny.
Mr Shavanov’s uncle, Movsud Tovkhagov, told media that his nephew had travelled to Moscow to treat stomach problems on 20 February and had returned a week later to Chechnya. “I am 100 per cent sure that suspicions that my nephew [participated in] the murder of Nemtsov have no basis,” he said.