The body of a regime-critical Chechen blogger appears in a French hotel. Few facts are known so far, but Chechen activists fear the worst.
The hotel “Coq Hardi” directly at the train station in Lille makes an inconspicuous impression on the Internet: bright windows, patterned wallpaper and a bit old furniture. On January 30, hotel employees made a gruesome find in one of these rooms: They found a male body with stab wounds on the neck. When the local newspaper reported to the northern French city the same evening, the identity was not yet known.
It is now known that it was the 44-year-old blogger Imran Aliyev, a Chechen who had criticized the regime there in his videos. Under the pseudonym “Mansur Staryj” he also personally criticized Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin loyal ruler of the Russian republic.
Aliyev’s YouTube channel is currently blocked. With a critical comment, he had made enemies in the neighboring Chechen republic of Ingushetia – but far more theories say that his criticism of Kadyrov could have cost him his life.
The neighbors Ingushetia and Chechnya have been fighting over borders for years
The French police confirmed on DW’s request that the man had died a violent death and was being investigated for murder. No one has been arrested so far. The police remained silent on other specific questions from DW – including whether there are concrete traces in other European countries. The AFP news agency had quoted investigators as saying: “In view of his public criticism of Kadyrov’s government, the killing bears ‘all signs of a political motive'” – the police also left open whether the investigation was being carried out in this direction.
All the more detailed are the speculations from Aliyev’s environment as to what could have happened: In a video, another Chechen blogger named Tumso Abdurachmanow gives the name of a man who he believes to be the murderer. The latter traveled to Berlin in Spain in mid-January and from there to Belgium. He even lived there for a week with Aliyev before accompanying him to Lille – supposedly to sedate and stab him there with sleeping pills. Abdurachmanow asked suspected helpers in Berlin to contact the German police. He did not name sources for his version of the story.
Suppression in the chewing room
The Swedish lawyer Jens Sjölund cannot say anything about this specific case but points out that many Chechens abroad could well get such information from the power apparatus. Sjölund represents many Chechens, including Abdurachmanow. He also works for the Chechen human rights organization Vayfond, registered in Sweden, which looks after Chechen exiles across Europe. Tens of thousands of Chechens have fled to Europe since the war in the 1990s and 2000s when the Caucasus Republic fought for independence from Russia. Towards the end of the war, Moscow installed Ramzan Kadyrov as head of the republic – who ruled Chechnya with a hard hand.
“He controls the police and security apparatus in Chechnya,” Sjölund told DW. “There is evidence that they torture people or make false allegations, such as injecting drugs and arresting them.” In addition to government critics, homosexuals are also being targeted. And even Chechen exiles would have to fear further: “If they want to find a person, they can also find family members at home as a kind of collective punishment.”
Even if a few facts are still certain in the case of Imran Aliyev, who was killed in Lille, some observers fear that this could entail a new quality of intimidation. Last autumn, threats against Chechens living in Europe surfaced online, lawyer Sjölund recalls. These messages further contributed to an already nervous mood: On August 23, Georgian Chechen Selimkhan Khangoshvili was shot in the open in a Berlin park. The traces of the “zoo murder” quickly led from Germany to Russia; both countries expelled two diplomats from each other.
Lille and the Berlin zoo
“The murder of Khangoshvili in August in Berlin may have been a warning to other Chechens,” says Sjölund. “But it’s also a fact that Chechnya has had Selimkhan Khangoshvili on the list for a long time.” If one believes the statements of the blogger Abdurachmanow, a trace could lead to Germany again in the case of Aliyev. The French police did not reply to the question of whether foreign investigative agencies were involved. The German Federal Criminal Police Office informed DW that it was not currently involved in the case.
Regarding the zoo murder, but also the Russian poisoning attack against double agent Sergei Skripal 2018 in Salisbury in the UK, Sjölund says: “It seems that Russia and Chechnya are carrying out such operations in European countries hand in hand.” Governments do not always take the right measures to protect the Chechen diaspora from this, but also admits: “Of course, it is difficult to protect people from murders in broad daylight that involve contract killers.” Investigators are now concerned with whether this was the case with Imran Aliyev.