Newlywed charity workers are latest victims of Chechen terror

Shaun Walker in Shalakhi witnesses the fear and grief provoked by a brutal double murder in the Russian region

Wednesday 12 August 2009 03:01 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The men mourned silently, raising their hands to their shell-shocked faces in prayer; the women sat on the other side of the courtyard in headscarves, wailing uncontrollably. They had come to bid farewell to two more victims of the horrifying systematic violence that plagues Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechnya.

Newlywed charity workers Zarema Sadulayeva and Umar Dzhabrailov were kidnapped from their offices in Grozny on Monday afternoon . Yesterday – in the early hours of what would have been Mr Dzhabrailov's 33rd birthday – their bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in the boot of his car just outside the Chechen capital.

Ms Sadulayeva, also 33, ran the charity Save the Generations, which helped disabled and injured children receive treatment and education. The brutal killings of her and husband come less than a month after the murder of Natalya Estemirova, Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist.

Yesterday, relatives and friends came to pay their respects at Ms Sadulayeva's family home in the village of Shalakhi, a 45-minute drive from Grozny. A heavily-armed military checkpoint had been erected at the main entrance to the village and locals said that plain-clothed officials had been combing the village watching the mourners, creating an atmosphere of fear around the funeral.

Inside the house, female relatives performed the grim task of preparing the body for burial, sponging down the naked corpse with wet cloths. The body showed signs of bullet and knife wounds, as well as heavy bruising on the wrists, knuckles and abdomen. An independent expert who was shown photographs of the body suggested that the abdominal bruises as well as broken blood vessels on her breasts could indicate that Ms Sadulayeva had been raped before she was murdered.

Abductions and extrajudicial executions have become a way of life in the Chechnya of Mr Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched sides to become a Kremlin hardman. Ms Estemirova was one of the few people brave enough to document these abuses until her untimely death on 15 July.

In the latest killings, fingers were not immediately pointed at Mr Kadyrov personally. Whereas Ms Estemirova was working on politically sensitive issues such as abduction and torture in Chechnya and was a frequent, vocal critic of Mr Kadyrov, Ms Sadulayeva was a low-profile figure who got on with her charity work.

"I know what kind of society we live in here and I warned her again and again not to make any controversial statements, not even the slightest hint," said one of the slain woman's relatives outside the family home.

One possible explanation of for Ms Sadulayeva's murder is that special forces may have come to kidnap Mr Dzhabrailov and then also kidnapped his wife after she resisted the attackers. Mr Dzhabrailov had served a four-year prison sentence for aiding Chechnya's Muslim insurgency but was freed under a wide-ranging amnesty earlier this year.

The only witness to the abduction was a colleague from the Save the Generations charity, say relatives. He told them that six men burst into the organisation's office about 2pm on Monday, four in combat fatigues and two in civilian clothing, and dragged the couple outside. They later returned to take their mobile phones and their car.

That the kidnappers were able to return calmly to the crime scene to retrieve these items is a striking indication of the level of impunity with which kidnappings occur in Chechnya. The witness is now "under protection" of the Chechen authorities and many fear he may simply disappear.

As the news of the kidnapping broke late on Monday, members of Chechnya's closely-knit human rights community began calling each other; spreading the news and formulating a game plan. By evening, a small group of about a dozen activists and relatives had gathered to demand information at a police station in a Grozny suburb where the parents of the victims had been called for questioning.

By the time the activists dispersed in the middle of the night, they already expected the worst and their fears were realised early in the morning when the bodies of the couple were discovered. Some of them felt that the killing was a signal that nobody was safe and they should stop their work.

"They killed Estemirova, Memorial [the group for whom she worked] closed down its offices in Chechnya; and now many other organisations are thinking whether they should carry on their work in Chechnya or not," said one activist who did not want to be named. "By killing one more person, this shows civil society that any humanitarian work in Chechnya is dangerous and will stop people from doing this kind of work."

If Mr Kadyrov is not responsible, the killing is instead a sign that his control over the various militias and security forces operating outside the law in Chechnya is dwindling. Yesterday, he called the double murder a "challenge to Chechen society" and promised to track down the killers.

At the funeral, family members had a more traditional Chechen solution to the problem, saying they did not trust the authorities and would find out who was responsible themselves. "We'll find the person who did this and they will never walk again on this Earth," said a male relative of Ms Sadulayeva, before returning to the prayers.

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