Investigation Links Critic's Death to Top Chechens
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VIENNA -- Umar S. Israilov, a whistleblower living in hiding after accusing Chechnya's president of personally participating in torture, kidnapping and murder, was gunned down here last year as he stepped from a grocery store with yogurt, eggs and bags of M&M's and Gummi Bears for his three young children.
The president of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, who has suppressed a separatist insurgency with harsh methods and unwavering Kremlin backing, vigorously denied any knowledge of Mr. Israilov, one of his former bodyguards, or of his death.
But a 15-month Austrian investigation into the crime has uncovered links between the suspected killers and one of Mr. Kadyrov's close advisers, a one-legged former rebel who has been described, in unrelated allegations in Russia, as an organizer of Mr. Kadyrov's dirty work.
It has also shown how the brutal rules of a place like Chechnya can reach from the Caucasus into Western Europe, where Mr. Israilov found refuge. Federal counterterrorism investigators here unraveled a plot with bungling, panicky Chechen hit men frantically talking on their cellphones -- including placing a call to Mr. Kadyrov's adviser in Russia, Shaa Turlayev, while trying to escape. Before the killing, two of these men also met in Austria with Mr. Turlayev, a copy of whose passport was found in the getaway car.
The new evidence raises questions about Mr. Kadyrov's denial and whether Chechnya's president or government played a direct role in the killing, one of a string of contract-style slayings -- in Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Moscow, Europe and the Middle East -- that have silenced the Chechen president's critics or rivals. These killings have left the impression that Mr. Kadyrov, whose rise and hold on power has been nurtured by Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, stands above any government's law.
Mr. Israilov, who was 27, was a combatant in the ugly separatist war in Chechnya and was accused of engaging in violence himself. But in the end, he played by Europe's rules: he had received asylum in Austria and was taking his evidence against Mr. Kadyrov to the European Court of Human Rights. He was attacked in broad daylight on a public street by killers who stopped traffic in Austria's capital.
Austrian prosecutors say they will announce indictments in the case soon, perhaps within weeks. Any evidence suggesting the involvement of Chechnya's president or government puts Austria in an uncomfortable position, both domestically and diplomatically.
The Police Work
The case began with routine police work: Otto Kaltenbrunner, 41, now accused of being the local organizer of the Mr. Israilov's killing, was identified after witnesses reported the license plate on a green Volvo that sped away from where the victim lay bleeding on the street. The license plate matched a Volvo that Mr. Kaltenbrunner owned. He was arrested within hours.
The case's implications grew as the police mapped out Mr. Kaltenbrunner's movements and phone calls, which led to the other suspects, according to defense lawyers, Austria's federal prosecutor's office, and a man with access to the investigators' records who asked not to be identified because of security concerns.
Early clues also suggested the killers' circle intersected with the Chechen government: According to the investigators' records, when the police recovered Mr. Kaltenbrunner's car, they found an electronic airline ticket and a copy of the passport of Mr. Turlayev, 37, the Chechen president's close adviser.
The investigation then revealed that two and a half months before the killing, Mr. Turlayev traveled from Moscow to Vienna and was met at the airport by several Chechen men, including at least two who are central suspects in the crime -- Lecha Bogatirov and Mr. Kaltenbrunner, who was born in Chechnya in Soviet times.
While in Austria, Mr. Turlayev tried repeatedly to meet Mr. Israilov, his widow said in an interview. When Mr. Turlayev left Austria without meeting him, he was driven back to the airport by the same two men, investigators found. These men, in the days before the crime, bought and activated two cellphone cards, with consecutive numbers, which they used to communicate with each other.
Mr. Bogatirov, 35, is suspected by the authorities of confronting Mr. Israilov minutes after noon on Jan. 13, 2009, as Mr. Israilov stepped from a grocery across from the apartment where he lived with his children and pregnant wife. After Mr. Israilov resisted and ran, the investigation found, Mr. Bogatirov chased and opened fire, shooting him three times with a pistol.
As Mr. Israilov was dying, Mr. Bogatirov and another man who had chased the victim, Turpal Ali Yesherkayev, madly retraced steps toward the store, the investigation found. They tried without success to pull at least one driver from a passing car, and make their escape.
At last they ended up in a Volvo owned by Mr. Kaltenbrunner, who was not present at the killing, the investigation found. A third man, Muslim Dadayev, drove the getaway car; he sped away toward another market, where they ditched the car and Mr. Bogatirov's jacket, and then headed out of the city, first on public transportation and then by taxi, investigators said.
As they fled, they were anything but a picture of collected assassins: they continuously placed and received cellphone calls.
During this time, Mr. Kaltenbrunner, 41, used his new cellphone number to call Mr. Bogatirov's new cellphone number, according to the investigators' account. The call lasted 93 seconds. Immediately after speaking with Mr. Bogatirov, Mr. Kaltenbrunner used the same line to call a Russian cellphone used by Mr. Turlayev.
A short while later, Mr. Kaltenbrunner and Mr. Bogatirov stopped using their new numbers altogether, according to the man with access to the records.
Since 2004, Mr. Kadyrov, himself a former rebel fighter and boxer, has transformed the internal Russian republic on the Caucasus' northern slopes from a war-ravaged ruin into a police microstate.
His rule has been accompanied by a building boom and a sharp decline in open fighting, though the war has simmered and occasional terrorist attacks have continued, including a pair of recent suicide bombings in Moscow. But his methods have also drawn charges from associates and human rights groups about personal excesses and a penchant for crime.
Some allegations -- including that Mr. Kadyrov cavorted with prostitutes in a bathhouse -- have challenged the president's self-styled image as a devout Sufi Muslim leading his republic's religious revival. Others -- including that Mr. Kadyrov shakes down contractors, and diverts state oil sales and money for Chechen redevelopment to his own coffers -- have portrayed him as given to graft.
Human rights investigators and the critics who dare to criticize Mr. Kadyrov depict a sadist who designed and took part in a campaign of collective punishment to bring Chechnya to heel.
The court documents filed by Mr. Israilov and his father, Sharpuddi Israilov, provided detailed evidence supporting this view.
In complaints to Russian prosecutors and to the European Court of Human Rights, the Israilovs said that Mr. Kadyrov, in previous government positions, had instigated a campaign of abductions of suspected separatists and their families, and then personally tortured detainees, including the Israilovs, and ordered killings or was present as detainees were put to death. The court documents, filed in late 2006, included the first formal complaints levied against Mr. Kadyrov by an insider from his circle, and appear to have been the first to accuse Mr. Kadyrov personally in the human rights court. They also pulled Mr. Israilov into an ever more threatening game.
Mr. Israilov had been a Chechen rebel, was captured, tortured, switched sides under pressure and joined Mr. Kadyrov's security apparatus. During his tenure as a security officer, according to statements collected from Chechens by the police, he was feared; he himself had been accused of severely beating Chechen men, including a brother of Mr. Dadayev's.
Ultimately, he broke ranks and fled Russia for Poland. His father was then abducted by members of Mr. Kadyrov's police units, the complaints said, and tortured and held for nearly a year. Mr. Kadyrov raged and beat him, Sharpuddi Israilov said in interviews with The New York Times, and called Umar and threatened to kill Sharpuddi if Umar did not come home.
Sharpuddi Israilov was released as part of a Ramadan gesture, he said. He fled Russia, too.
Taken together, the complaints sketched the inner workings of busy institutional torture centers, part of a joint Russian-Chechen effort to subdue the separatists through force and collective punishment, and install the Kadyrov family in power. The complaints also described the brutality of one of Mr. Kadyrov's closest confidants, Adam Delimkhanov, who since 2007 has been a member of Russia's Duma, the lower house of Parliament.
Mr. Delimkhanov, a member of the political party led by Mr. Putin, is wanted on an international arrest warrant for his suspected role in ordering the killing in the United Arab Emirates of Sulim B. Yamadayev, a rival of Mr. Kadyrov's who was fatally shot in 2009, six weeks after Mr. Israilov was gunned down here.
Before he was killed, Mr. Israilov told the Austrian police that he was a marked man.
In the summer of 2008 he reported that an emissary from Mr. Kadyrov had arranged meetings with him and demanded that he drop his legal complaints and return to Chechnya. The man threatened Mr. Israilov's family, he said. The man was subsequently interviewed by Austrian counterterrorism investigators; he told them that Mr. Kadyrov maintained a death list of 300 enemies to be killed, and managed a special department responsible for the killings, according to an official summary. The authorities released the man, who returned to Russia. The existence of this list has not been independently confirmed.
In December 2008, Mr. Israilov told the police he was being watched and followed, and asked for protection. The police declined to provide any. A few weeks later, Mr. Israilov was dead. Then the authorities took notice.
The Austrian authorities now have three Chechens in custody in the case: Mr. Kaltenbrunner, Mr. Yesherkayev, and Mr. Dadayev, who is accused of monitoring Mr. Israilov's movements in the weeks before the killing and then driving the getaway car.
Prosecutors are now preparing indictments, according to defense lawyers and Gerhard Jarosch, a spokesman for the prosecutors. Mr. Jarosch added that it was too soon to know who would be charged when indictments were made public, perhaps next month. Mr. Israilov's family and supporters hope that Mr. Kadyrov will be named, called into account in the West in ways he has not been in Russia.
There is small chance, though, that any suspects in Russia would ever face justice here. Russia has steadfastly refused to extradite citizens implicated in prominent murders abroad.
The investigation is also wrapping up at a time when Chechen political killings have gained attention in ways that have parallels to this case; a Russian newspaper and a video posted on the Internet have both claimed, though not in relation to this case, that Mr. Turlayev arranges the killings of Mr. Kadyrov's enemies at the president's request.
The facts in Austria are suggestive but circumstantial. No other whistleblower has stepped forth; two important suspects escaped to Russia; and there is no known star witness for the prosecution.
Instead, there are tantalizing clues. "We know of the connection between Kaltenbrunner and Turlayev," Mr. Jarosch said. "The connection is there."
What is less clear is Mr. Turlayev's precise role, Mr. Jarosch said, or whether Mr. Kadyrov played a hand. The three men in custody have largely not cooperated with investigators, he said. And Mr. Bogatirov fled Austria for Russia before he could be detained.
Mr. Jarosch also said it remained possible that Mr. Israilov was killed as part of a dispute between Chechens in exile, as the authorities suggested last year after the killing became a closely watched international case.
Mr. Kadyrov, through his staff, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in past interviews with The Times has denied all allegations of involvement in torture or capital crimes.
Mr. Turlayev could not be reached. A call to the phone number that Mr. Kaltenbrunner called immediately after the killing was answered by a man who identified himself as Mr. Turlayev's brother, who said that Mr. Turlayev was in Turkey and unavailable to talk.
Mr. Bogatirov, whose whereabouts are unknown, could not be reached. The lawyer for Mr. Israilov's family declined to comment. Rudi Mayer, the lawyer for Mr. Kaltenbrunner, confirmed that his client called Mr. Turlayev after the shooting, but said that he was innocent. The call was brief -- by one account, only 11 seconds -- and there is no transcript of what was said. "He placed phone calls, but not about a murder," Mr. Mayer said. "Nobody knows what was spoken."
Lennart Binder, the lawyer for Mr. Dadayev, said he had driven the car, but had not thought he was participating in a murder. Mr. Dadayev had been told, Mr. Binder said, that Mr. Israilov owed someone money. That fits one theory under consideration by prosecutors: that the group planned to abduct Mr. Israilov, and killed him when he fought back and bolted.
"He says that he was told that he is participating in kidnapping Israilov, not in murder." Mr. Binder said in an e-mail message, adding that his client felt he had no choice, under Chechnya's cruel rules, but to participate. "The refusal to cooperate would have endangered the security of relatives in Chechnya."
First Published April 26, 2010 2:01 am