‘We will pursue you until we cut off your heads’ Chechnya reports massive protest against the family of anti-torture activist

On Wednesday, February 2, the Chechen authorities reported that 400,000 people had joined a rally in Grozny to protest the family of prominent anti-torture activist Abubakar Yangulbayev. The demonstration came a day after Russian lawmaker Adam Delimkhanov threatened to decapitate members of the Yangulbayev family. The activist’s father, retired judge Saidi Yangulbayev, fled Russia along with his daughter on January 23 — three days after his wife, Zarema Musayeva, was forcibly taken to Chechnya. The threats against the Yangulbayev family echo menacing remarks made by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has also been leveling accusations against Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina (who is known for her investigative work in Chechnya) and human rights activist Igor Kalyapin (who, like Abubakar Yangulbayev, works for the Committee for the Prevention of Torture). 

An ‘unsanctioned’ rally

A rally in Grozny drew 400,000 people on Wednesday, pro-government Chechen media outlets reported. The demonstrators protested against the family of anti-torture activist and lawyer Abubarkar Yangulbayev, whose mother is currently in custody in Chechnya. Yangulbayev’s father and siblings have fled Russia. The demonstration came a day after a Russian lawmaker from Chechnya threatened to “cut the heads off” Yangulbayev’s relatives.

The demonstrators at the rally “cursed” the Yangulbayevs and burned portraits depicting members of the family, reported the publication Chechnya Today. Chechnya’s state-controlled Grozny TV claimed that only men took part in Wednesday’s rally — this would mean that the number of protesters was equivalent to roughly 50 percent of the republic’s male population. Allegedly, the gathering wasn’t “sanctioned” by the authorities. However, Chechen officials spoke at it (including Chechnya’s parliamentary speaker Magomed Daudov, who is among Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s closest associates), and the police did not disperse the crowd. 

According to the Russian State news agency TASS, the rally was sparked by insulting audio recordings concerning religious figures from the the North Caucasus that were leaked online — allegedly, the recordings were made by Saidi Yangulbayev’s sons (the Chechen authorities believe one of Yangulbayev’s sons, Ibragim, is the administrator of the Chechen opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT). Speaking at the rally, Mufti of Chechnya Salakh-Hadji Mezhiev said, “The Yangulbayevs recorded very ‘dirty’ audio about our [saints], about our people, and everything that is so revered by Chechens. No one [can] allow themselves such baseness.” 

Speaking at the rally, the head of Chechnya’s Public Chamber, Ismail Denilkhanov, called for the closure of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain). Denilkhanov accused Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Milashina — who is well-known for her coverage of Chechnya — and Committee for the Prevention of Torture chairman Igor Kalyapin of “anti-state extremist activities.” He accused them of “supervising” members of the Yangulbayev family, who, he claimed, “justify terrorism against the inhabitants of Chechnya and call for the destructions of virtually the entire Chechen people.” Denilkhanov then called for Milashina and Kalyapin “to be arrested and afforded a fair trial.”

A day earlier, State Duma deputy from Chechnya Adam Delimkhanov threatened to behead Yangulbayev’s relatives. “We will pursue you until we cut off your heads and kill you. We really have a vendetta against you and a blood feud,” Delimkhanov said in a statement given in Chechen. The lawmaker also threatened to behead anyone who translated his threats into Russian. (The opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT translated his words anyway.) Other Chechen officials later released video statements making similar threats against the Yangulbayevs. 

The Kremlin’s spokesman refused to comment on Delimkhanov’s threatening statement. “This isn’t our function. This is the function of the State Duma and the [parliamentary] committee that handles ethics,” presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday. In turn, the deputy head of the State Duma’s Parliamentary Ethics Commission, Nikolai Arefyev, said that such threats “should be reviewed not by the Ethics Commission, but by the Attorney General’s Office.” A representative of the Presidential Council for Human Rights also stated that the Attorney General’s Office should deal with the incident.

Who are the Yangulbayevs?

Saidi Yangulbayev is a retired judge who sat on the Supreme Court of Chechnya. His wife, Zarema Musayeva, was arrested just a few weeks ago. On January 20, masked men claiming to be police officers forced their way into the couple’s apartment, detained Musayeva, and forcibly took her to Chechnya (Musayeva was violently taken from her home without so much as shoes or a coat).

The Chechen authorities later said that Musayeva was being held in a special detention center on administrative charges of insulting a government official. It later emerged that she was facing criminal charges for assaulting a policeman. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that Musayeva “attacked a police officer and almost poked out his eye.” On Wednesday, a Grozny court ruled to jail Musayeva for two months pending trial. 

In December 2021, Saidi Yangulbayv’s son, the anti-torture activist Abubakar Yangulbayev, reported that around 40 of his family members had been kidnapped. “In modern-day Russia it’s dangerous to work for the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. And in Chechnya, this risk increases many times over,” Abubakar Yangulbayev told Meduza at the time.

On December 28, the authorities raided Yangulbayev’s home in Pyatigorsk (Stavropol Krai), confiscated his laptop and cellphone, and took him in for interrogation. Yangulbayev was released after several hours of questioning and, according to Novaya Gazeta, fled Russia that same day. 

Ramzan Kadyrov has denounced the Yangulbayev family as “terrorist accomplices” and demanded they be detained or “destroyed” if they resist. Saidi Yangulbayev fled Russia along with his daughter shortly after his wife’s arrest. His sons have already been living abroad for quite some time.

One son, Ibragim Yangulbayev, has linked the persecution of his family members to the fact that he runs Chechen opposition groups on social media. In late January, the Chechen authorities brought criminal charges against Ibragim Yangulbayev for allegedly inciting terrorist activities. According to Baza, state investigators believe that Ibragim Yangulbayev is one of the administrators of the opposition channel 1ADAT. The authorities claim the channel justifies the activities terrorist insurgents, such as Doku Umarov and Shamil Basayev.

Kadyrov has also called Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Milashina and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture’s Igor Kalyapin “terrorists” and “terrorist accomplices.” Amid a statement leveling criticism against the Yangulbayevs on January 24, the Chechen leader claimed that Milashina and Kalyapin “make money off the topic of Chechnya and Chechens, developing scripts and whispering words and behavior into the ears of their characters.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Kadyrov was expressing “his personal opinion” and declined to give any other comment on the Chechen leader’s statements. In turn, Novaya Gazeta condemned the Kremlin’s stance. Both Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov and TV Rain have called on the Russian leadership to respond to Kadyrov’s threats. 

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Story by Olga Korelina

Updated translation by Eilish Hart

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