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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arrested Chechen Leader Vanishes

In a large-scale operation involving armored vehicles and helicopters, federal forces arrested Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, at his home in Shali in broad daylight more than three months ago.

What happened to him after that is a mystery.

The authorities say he is not in custody and they have no record of his arrest.

But Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov says he knows exactly where Alikhadzhiyev is dead in Moscows Lefortovo jail.

Saturdays announcement by Maskhadovs press service, which claims Alikhadzhiyev was tortured to death, has attracted the attention of the media, human rights watchdogs and Chechnyas newly elected deputy in parliament. But the Federal Security Service, or FSB, which operates Lefortovo, continued to deny Tuesday that it is holding Alikhadzhiyev.

Disappearing in federal custody is nothing new for residents of Chechnya. The human rights organization Memorial estimates that federal authorities have held thousands of Chechens for weeks or months without notifying relatives. Often, bodies are only found later.

But Alikhadzhiyevs case is striking because he is a political figure of moderate fame and was arrested in an operation that nobody tried to keep secret.

On the morning of May 17, federal forces arrived by armored vehicle, accompanied by helicopters, at Alikhadzhiyevs house, the Chechen parliament speakers cousin Visark Dombayev said in a telephone interview from his Moscow hotel room Tuesday.

Dombayev, who lives across the street from Alikhadzhiyev and witnessed the arrest, said Alikhadzhiyev did not resist.

Dombayevs account matched one provided by the newspaper Kommersant on May 23.

On May 25, Colonel General Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the General Staff, confirmed the arrest, off-handedly including Alikhadzhiyevs name in a list of prominent rebels taken prisoner that he ticked off at a briefing.

But in the following months, the record of Alikhadzhiyevs arrest somehow disappeared.

State Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalyov sent an official inquiry about Alikhadzhiyev to federal prosecutors in Chechnya. In late July, a deputy prosecutor, V.A. Russkikh, sent an answer, a copy of which was provided to The Moscow Times: Alikhadzhiyev was not in federal custody and had never been arrested.

This week, Alikhadzhiyevs name surfaced again when Maskhadovs representatives declared that he was tortured to death in the Lefortovo jail.

Roman Khalilov, who calls himself the head of the political department of the Chechen Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview Monday that the information about Alikhadzhiyevs death came from Maskhadov himself and that the president "of course, does not reveal his sources."

The FSB denied the charges.

"Alikhadzhiyev was never in the Lefortovo detention center," Itar-Tass quoted an FSB spokesman as saying Tuesday. "Moreover, there has not been a single death in that detention center recently."

Aslambek Aslakhanov, who was elected in Chechnya to the State Duma last month, said that according to his sources, Alikhadzhiyev is alive but is indeed being held in Lefortovo.

Aslakhanov, a retired police general, said that after Alikhadzhiyevs supporters approached him this week he contacted his acquaintances in the Justice Ministry, which oversees most of the countrys prisons.

He said an aide to a deputy minister informed him that Alikhadzhiyev is alive in Lefortovo. But since Lefortovo is run by the FSB and not by the Justice Ministry, the source said his hands were tied in the matter.

Alikhadzhiyev is considered a moderate in the rebel government and has publicly criticized extremists like field commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab. Both his supporters and Chechens not explicitly allied with him say he did not participate in rebel attacks in the current war.

Nevertheless, the cousin Dombayev said, Alikhadzhanov knew he could be captured. Three months before his arrest, federal forces stormed his house in Shali, but Alikhadzhanov was not there.

After that, he only came back to visit his sick mother, said Dombayev, who had come to Moscow to try to get some answers about his cousins whereabouts.

A month before his arrest, Alikhadzhanov called for negotiations between Moscow and Maskhadovs government in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta.