One of Russia's most celebrated human rights activist is accusing Chechnya's feared leader of running a "totalitarian" regime as he prepares to take the stand in a trial that tests Russia's tolerance for criticism of the way the province is run.
Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov claims he was slandered by Oleg Orlov, head of the internationally respected Memorial rights group, when the activist said he was "guilty" in a co-worker's murder. The case has moved along in fits and starts for months, but Thursday's session is the first in which Orlov takes the stand. Kadyrov's lawyer Andrei Krasnenikov had said the strongman would attend the session in person, but his spokesman, Alvi Karimov said Wendesday he would not. There was no explanation for the discrepancy.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Orlov refused to back down on his claim that Kadyrov was ultimately responsible for the slaying, whether or not Kadyrov personally ordered the 2009 hit on Nataliya Estemirova, who directed Memorial's Chechnya office.
"When I talked about his guilt, I didn't say he was directly complicit in the crime," Orlov said in his Moscow office.
"I said that his direct complicity ... is possible, even one of the most probable versions of events, and that this probable version has to be investigated," said the white-haired and mustachioed Orlov.
Estemirova was abducted in the Russian republic's capital Grozny and found shot to death along a roadside hours later. Orlov said at a news conference: "People ask me, who is guilty of this murder? ... I know the name of this person. ... His name is Ramzan Kadyrov."
The trial pits a Kremlin-backed leader accused of using kidnap and torture to maintain stability in the volatile region against an activist trying to hold him accountable for those crimes. Orlov could be sentenced to three years in prison if found guilty.
Kadyrov at first shrugged off the accusation. "Why would Kadyrov kill a woman whom no one cared about?" he said in an August 2009 interview with Radio Free Europe. "She never had any honor, dignity or a conscience. Never."
But later he took the matter to court. Last year he won a civil judgment against Orlov and then brought it to criminal court. In the wake of the civil judgment, Orlov says he's resigned to losing the criminal case, but hopes to escape with a fine rather than jail.
Orlov said Kadyrov has set up a regime in which the state controls every aspect of life, where henchmen carry out torture and even killings at the whim of the leadership.
"In Chechnya, such conditions have been created when any public desire, opinion, displeasure by someone (in power) is taken as a directive, as a law that must be carried out unconditionally," he said.
Any such directive finds "masses of volunteers" among law enforcement agencies, Orlov said. He said this was to blame for Estemirova's murder. "I don't know if he gave the order himself or if it was his close associates," Orlov said.
As the Chechen leader continues to enjoy the Kremlin's blessing _ he cements the relationship by building roads named after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and hanging Putin billboards _ Orlov sees no end in sight to Kadyrov's brutal leadership and unchecked drive to eliminate his enemies.
"A totalitarian society has been built. Not authoritarian rule, but totalitarian. The authorities are omnipresent in all aspects of a person's life and want to control a person, and do exert control."
Kadyrov once fought with Chechnya's separatist rebels, but changed sides before the second Chechen war started in 1999. His father, Akhmad _ also a former rebel _ became Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, but was killed in 2004 when rebels bombed a stadium where he was attending a ceremony.
While his father was president, the younger Kadyrov formed a security force widely alleged to have abducted, tortured and executed rebels and their sympathizers. He retained command of the militia after the Kremlin appointed him Chechen president in 2008.
Estemirova worked tirelessly to provide a modicum of support to Chechens whose relatives had been kidnapped and killed. Chechen authorities investigated the cases rarely, if ever.
"Only after her death did we truly understand what an important role she played," Orlov said. "This murder ... was an illuminating demonstration to everybody: You can't even defend your own people. You are not protected. Any of you can be killed."
Orlov is at peace with the fact that his job carries huge risks in Russia, but admits that Kadyrov's reach has him spooked. "To say that I have no fear would be stretching it. ... I feel the threat," he said matter-of-factly.
"But the point is not to allow the fear to dictate your actions. Fear in itself isn't harmful _ it helps with self-preservation," he added.
Suspicions are rife Kadyrov's battles have left the confines of Chechnya in the past, with the shootings of his enemies in Moscow, Vienna and Dubai in recent years.
Austrian police have said they want to speak to Kadyrov about the January 2009 murder of his former bodyguard-turned-critic, Umar Israilov. And Dubai police have accused federal lawmaker Adam Delimkhanov, considered to be Kadyrov's right-hand man in Moscow, of involvement in the March 2009 slaying of former Chechen warlord Sulim Yamadayev.
This is the first time his fight has entered the Moscow judiciary, which is notorious for bending to the rich and powerful.
Kadyrov has consistently denied involvement in any of the killings, saying the accusations are fabricated to blacken his name, but his foes say his record of violence in Chechnya undermines any claims of innocence.
Under Kadyrov's leadership and backed by huge tranches of money from the federal budget, Chechnya has become relatively quiet. The capital Grozny, left mostly in ruins by two wars, has risen from the rubble, and the insurgent violence that once gripped Chechnya has, on the whole, migrated to neighboring republics.
Kadyrov oversaw a massive crackdown, as authorities persecuted anyone thought to have ties to the rebels. Rights groups like Orlov's have documented disappearances, house torchings and extra-judicial killings, and say they have evidence of Kadyrov's direct participation in torturing crime suspects.
"We try to tell them that state terrorism isn't even effective _ never mind the fact that's its criminal," Orlov said.
He says Kadyrov turns the tables and accuses rights activists of abetting terrorism.
"This is a person who publicly equates experts who give a negative assessment of the situation in the North Caucasus with terrorists. ... He says we are accomplices to terrorists. In these conditions, it is a danger to even call yourself a human rights organization in the Caucasus," Orlov said.