GROZNY, Russia (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied Friday in the capital of Russia's Chechnya republic in support of strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kadyrov in recent weeks has been speaking out against independent journalists and opposition activists, calling for them to be sent to psychiatric hospitals or prosecuted as traitors in the service of a hostile West.
His comments have an ominous ring. In the past, Russian journalists or opposition leaders have been killed after challenging Putin or Kadyrov, who describes himself as the president's loyal "foot soldier." Some of the slaying were preceded by similar threats and some of the suspected killers have been Chechens.
Rights activists in Russia and the West have criticized Kadyrov, with some demanding that he be fired.
Participants at Friday's rally in Grozny praised Kadyrov for bringing stability to the predominantly Muslim region after two separatist wars, punctuating their speeches with cries of "God is great!" and "Kadyrov is a Russian patriot."
Malika Murtaeva, a 53-year-old homemaker, said she came to show her support for Kadyrov, who took over the leadership of Chechnya after the assassination of his father in 2004 and rebuilt the war-torn republic with generous funding from Moscow.
"But some don't like his good deeds and come up with various accusations against him," Murtaeva said. "Everything they say against Kadyrov, I take as a personal attack against me, because their goal is to deprive me of the person who brought peace and stability to me and everyone in our republic, independent of nationality or creed."
The rally, organized by Chechen trade unions, drew people from across Chechnya and neighboring regions. Chechen police put the size of the crowd at 1 million, a figure that was not possible to confirm independently. But the entire population of Chechnya is 1.3 million.
In a commentary in the Izvestia newspaper this week, Kadyrov called opposition leaders "jackals" intent on destroying the strong Russian state. He suggested sending them to a psychiatric hospital in Chechnya, saying, "I could help them deal with this clinical problem and I promise we won't stint on injections. Where one is prescribed, we could do two."
The Chechen leader also condemned independent media organizations, including the respected Ekho Moskvy radio, for giving air time to opposition leaders.
Alexei Venediktov, the longtime Ekho Moskvy editor, attributed the verbal attacks to the station's coverage of the investigation into the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead Feb. 27 last year just outside the Kremlin.
The suspects under arrest in Nemtsov's slaying are all Chechens, including the suspected triggerman, a former officer in Kadyrov's security forces. Nemtsov's family has petitioned investigators to look into Kadyrov's possible role, but he has not been officially linked to the killing and has denied any involvement.
Amnesty International and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have urged Putin and his government to respond to Kadyrov's statements. Amnesty noted that the killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Chechen rights defender Natalya Estemirova in 2009 were preceded by similar threats.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stopped just short of defending Kadyrov, saying the Chechen was referring to opposition activists who work outside the system and "are ready to break the law, including in ways that damage the country."
Friday's mass rally served as Kadyrov's response.
"Those who are against Kadyrov are against Russia," said Ibrahim Khasanov, 55. "And patriots of Russia should remember all of this."
Katherine Jacobsen and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.