Vienna | The Long Arm of Kadyrov

After the Chechen president is implicated in a dissident’s murder, exiles in the Austrian capital are terrified they could be next

Refugees beside the Terek river, fleeing their villages as the Russian army advances at the start of the Second Chechen War in late 1999. © GYORI ANTOINE/CORBIS SYGMA
01 June, 2010

WHEN I MET ASLAN DAUDOV, who asked that we not print his real name, at a crowded café in Vienna’s Westbahnhof station, he was afraid he would be deported within a couple of hours to Poland.  “Each time I see a policeman I lose one kilo of weight,” he said, expressing the sort of gallows humour common amongst asylum seekers.

The 30-year-old Chechen asylum seeker was less concerned about Poland’s negligible acceptance rate of Chechen refugees than of a far worse fate: being kidnapped, tortured and killed by Chechen government agents.

Daudov has good reason to be fearful. A week earlier, Austrian investigators implicated the 34-year-old President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in the January 2009 killing of Chechen dissident Umar Israilov in Vienna. Israilov had filed cases in the European Court of Human Rights against Kadyrov, accusing him of torture, murder and rape. These were the first accusations against the Chechen president in an international forum. They were particularly damning since Israilov was a former bodyguard of Kadyrov, and claimed to have witnessed a number of these abuses firsthand.

Israilov was shot dead in broad daylight by three Chechens, whom police found were connected to aides of  Kadyrov.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, a tiny republic in southern Russia where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims, has remained mired in a cycle of conflict. The Second Chechen War started when Russian troops renewed their campaign to tamp down separatism in Chechnya, following a series of bombings in Moscow in 1999. Russia established a pro-Moscow government in 2000, and launched a brutal campaign to crush the insurgency. Since then the insurgency has waned in Chechnya and shifted to neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia—the Moscow subway suicide bombings in March this year that killed 39 were blamed on separatists who’d like to see an Islamic emirate in the Northern Caucasus.

Inside Chechnya, allegations of kidnappings, assassination and brutality by government militia have increased. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the Moscow-backed Kadyrov for brutally silencing dissent. In 2009, the same year as Israilov’s murder, three human rights activists who had reported on abuses committed by Kadyrov were killed in Chechnya. The most notable was Natalya Estemirova of the human rights organisation, Memorial. The group withdrew from Chechnya after her abduction and murder.

Daudov arrived in Vienna in 2006 and has been living here ever since. He fled his village in the Achkhoi-Martan district of Chechnya in 2005, where he says he was under threat from the government for assisting rebels during the Second Chechen War.

Daudov is evasive about his exact role during the war, claiming he only provided the rebels with clothing and ammunition. He also mentions that his uncle fought alongside the rebels. He says he and his family had been under constant threat from the military ever since. When his younger brother disappeared, Daudov decided to leave Chechnya.

He crossed the border from Russia into Belarus and from there into Poland, where he was arrested and put in a camp with other Chechen refugees. He says he never felt secure there. “There were people asking about me,” he says. “I knew that there were some people involved in crimes in Chechnya there, and when I heard of some people that I knew disappearing, I decided to leave myself.” He fled south through Slovakia and entered Austria, where he was arrested again.

Daudov was asked to report to Traiskirchen refugee camp, a few miles south of Vienna.

Since Daudov crossed two European Union member states before arriving in Austria, he was immediately marked as a ‘Dublin hit.’ His claim of asylum in Austria was rejected. Authorities planned to send him back to Poland. So Daudov fled Traiskirchen and appealed his case in the courts several times.

The Dublin Regulation was adapted by the EU in 2003. It holds that responsibility for asylum lies with the first country where the asylum seeker entered the EU. The result has been a de-facto fencing of Western Europe.

Austria hosts Europe’s largest population of Chechen refugees, according to Michael Genner, founder of Asyl In Not (Asylum In Emergency). A ferocious critic of European asylum policy, Genner says that the rate of acceptance of Chechen asylum seekers prior to the Dublin Regulation was almost 100 percent, and has halved since then.

“European asylum policy is essentially based on racism,” says Genner. “It is an instrument of Fortress Europe. There is a war against refugees, driven by fear that is drummed up by some politicians. The current policy makes no sense, from an economic or human rights perspective.”

In most cases, EU border states are ill-equipped to meet the demands of refugee protection. Chechen asylum seekers like Daudov might be at greater risk when they are pushed back to Eastern European countries where agents of the Chechen government have easier access to them.

A decision in Daudov’s case came in May, a few days before we spoke. The court indicated that it could not establish any reason for Daudov to be afraid of going to Poland, and that he ought to be sent back according to the Dublin procedure.

Daudov is terrified of Poland. “There are people there, Russians and Chechens, who are on the lookout for people like me.” He also says that there is a likelihood that he would be sent to Belarus, a former Soviet republic heavily under Moscow’s influence, where he fears imprisonment and torture.

But Israilov’s slaying has instilled a deeper fear in the Chechen community. Akhmad Sadulayev, a Chechen refugee who has been living in Austria since 2005 and also requested a pseudonym, says that ever since Israilov’s killing, Chechens are afraid of the reach that Kadyrov has across Europe. “They don’t understand how serious the situation is, especially in other countries,” he says. “If they could reach us in Austria, how difficult would it be in the former Soviet states?”

He tells me about a case of how a Chechen asylum seeker that he knew was once kidnapped in broad daylight in Poland. “We are all very afraid here,” he adds, “It is more horrible to wait for your killers than to be killed.”