Chechnya's strongman quizzed in court by top foe

AP News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2011 1:21 PM
Chechnya's strongman quizzed in court by top foe

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov faced off Thursday against one of his most scathing critics, a Russian human rights activist on trial for accusing the strongman of being behind a murder in 2009.

Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group, faces three years in prison if convicted of defamation.

Kadyrov has silenced most of his critics within Chechnya, a region in southern Russia where he rules with the Kremlin's blessing. His foes have fled or in some cases turned up dead.

For Orlov, perhaps Russia's most celebrated rights champion, it's ironic that the day he gets to interrogate Kadyrov in court, it is his own fate and not Kadyrov's that hangs in the balance.

Orlov's trial centers on a declaration he made not long after the kidnapping and killing of Chechen rights activist Natalya Estemirova, Memorial's representative in the region. Orlov stated then: "People ask me, who is guilty of this murder? ... I know the name of this person. ... His name is Ramzan Kadyrov."

Orlov claims he wasn't accusing Kadyrov of ordering the killing, which remains unsolved, but rather of wider responsibility for the climate of violence and impunity that allowed it to occur.

Testifying for the first time in this trial, by video link from a courtroom in Chechnya, Kadyrov said neither interpretation was acceptable, and that Orlov must be punished for defamation to the extent the law allows.

"He had no right to say either. He accused me of the murder of Natalya Estemirova," Kadyrov said. "After that, I had a tragedy in the family. I came home, mother was crying, the wife, the children, saying that Kadyrov killed a woman."

Estemirova, who worked tirelessly to bring a modicum of support to the relatives of people who were tortured, kidnapped or killed, was abducted outside her house in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and found shot along a roadside hours later.

Kadyrov attracted suspicion because of his public denunciation of human rights activists, equating them with terrorists, and his frosty personal relationship with Estemirova, who temporarily fled the country after their last meeting out of fear for her life.

Orlov and his attorney spent most of Thursday's session probing a strangely jovial Kadyrov to see if he would admit to the personal animosity he had previously expressed for Estemirova.

"She was a decent woman," he said. "But she never had any interest in protecting people. ... In her work I never saw anything sacred." Kadyrov said he felt guilt over the fact that she was killed, but in the same way he feels culpable "if a child falls ill."

Dressed in a dark blue jacket and light shirt, true to the more formal style that he has adopted in recent months, Kadyrov chuckled throughout the hearing, apparently over the novelty of the video conference. Periodically stroking his beard and tapping at his cell phone, he requested several times that his two-hour questioning be cut short because of a tight schedule.

Kadyrov who had a team of 10 supporters in the Moscow courtroom, appeared to relish the early exchanges with the judge, answering "not yet" when asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime.