KYIV—The Yangulbaev brothers could do nothing but watch in horror as thousands of people took to the streets of their hometown, shouting that the two men were “Western agents” and “The shame of the nation.” The pro-government mob stormed the public square of the Chechen capital city of Grozny and burned photographs of the siblings and their family who had earned the ire of notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his most ardent supporters.
It was a surreal moment for the exiled lawyers, 27-year-old Ibrahim and 29-year-old Abubakar, who had watched videos of the protests on Feb. 2 from a safe place in Europe. The brothers told The Daily Beast they had no intention of triggering a “blood feud” with Kadyrov. But after years of Abubakar documenting state-ordered torture cases in Chechnya, and Ibrahim raising alarms about the leader’s alleged corruption on social media, Kadyrov had essentially declared the two enemies of the state, threatening them “prison or burial” and encouraging public demonstrations against the family. One Chechen lawmaker went so far as to say he’d like to “rip [their] heads off.”
“It was the most absurd moment in my life: Chechen television showed crowds ‘protesting’ against my family,” Abubakar, who formerly worked with The Committee Against Torture, told The Daily Beast.
Before escaping the country late last year, both claim to have endured bouts of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the state. And just last month, their mother, Zarema Musayeva, was arrested on dubious charges of fraud, prompting their father to flee the country as well. “Kadryov and his police have already kept me in bases, hung me, poured cold water over me, tortured me with electricity. Now they are keeping my sick mother as their hostage in Chechnya,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim told The Daily Beast on Sunday that he thinks his family was initially targeted because of comments he made about Kadyrov on his Telegram channel. “I listed cases of impunity. I simply could not understand how [Kadyrov], a former separatist guerrilla, could be swimming in gold, enjoying corruption, while treating Chechens, as slaves. We are not terrorists, we are Kadyrov critics,” he said.
On the same day of the massive protest against the family, Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly met with Kadyrov. “Putin summoned Kadyrov to the Kremlin as a result of these outrageous attacks on our family. But we have not heard a single of Putin’s statements in support of the attacks,” Abubakar told The Daily Beast.
“We are not safe, [not] as long as Kadyrov and all his closest men are off the international terrorist list.”
As for their next steps, the attorney added: “We are going to fight Kadyrov now: I am a civilized lawyer, so I am going to use only civilized methods. We are not going to call for violence but appeal to Russian prosecutors and the Investigative Committee, after Kadyrov has called for murdering us all.”
Several of Moscow’s biggest media outlets and opposition politicians have spoken out in support of the Yangulbaev family. A decorated reporter from the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Yelena Milashina, had to flee Russia herself, after Kadyrov called her a “terrorist” over her coverage of the ordeal.
Moscow local deputy Ilya Yashin launched a petition calling for Kadyrov to be ousted on Monday. “Kadyrov constantly talks of ‘real men’ and dignity, but it is obvious for every Russian man that this is ultimately unmanly to kidnap a sick mother of your opponents. And this is criminal behavior to call for a blood feud, for ripping people’s heads off… I have been calling for the Kremlin to dismiss Kadyrov since 2016.”
More than 50,000 people signed Yashin’s petition within just a few hours on Monday. In it, Yashin writes that during the 15 years of Kadyrov’s rule, Chechnya has become a state within the state, playing by “its own rules, while Russian laws do not work there.”
The Chechen leader has gone “completely out of the Kremlin’s control,” according to Yashin. “We know that only one man can control Kadyrov: that is Putin. Everybody around Putin, including FSB generals, are surely outraged now to see how Kadyrov’s plans to cut heads off, so Putin has met with Kadyrov to calm things down,” Yashin told The Daily Beast. “But Kadyrov took it for a great achievement: he now brags about Putin receiving him on the highest level and giving him support; even if Putin did not give his support, that was how Kadyrov interpreted it. So we demand Putin to dismiss Kadyrov.”
The Daily Beast interviewed Abubakar back in December, shortly after police detained dozens of his relatives in Chechnya. “Kadyrov is mad at us because many people both in Chechnya and in Russia support us, and not him,” Abubakar had told The Daily Beast after Kadyrov promised that his family members will now “shake” every time they hear a knock at the door . “Sure, there were assassinations by Kadyrov squads in Russia, in Europe, and in Turkey but he has never called for impunity so openly. All of his fury is now channeled at my poor mother, who he keeps in jail. She has diabetes but we are not even sure she receives insulin to stay alive.”
Most independent Chechen experts believe that Kadyrov has a complete white card to control the country the way he pleases, as long as the republic remains stable and loyal to Moscow.
“For years, Chechen authorities relied on collective punishment to suppress dissent. The vicious attack on the Yangulbaev family is apparently meant as a signal to all critics and opponents of Kadyrov, and particularly those in Chechen diaspora,” Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told The Daily Beast on Monday .
Despite the horror their families have been through, the brothers say that the entire ordeal has inspired more citizens to speak out against Kadyrov than ever before.
“So far all Kadyrov has achieved by arresting our mother is that the number of [his Telegram channel’s] followers has increased from 16,000 to more than 36,000 people and most of them share our views. That is a huge opposition,” Ibrahim told The Daily Beast.
Still, he concedes, “We are not safe, [not] as long as Kadyrov and all his closest men are off the international terrorist list.”