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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kadyrov's Forces Strike Fear in Chechnya

VALERIK, Chechnya -- There was a time when Khamid Khadayev hated the Russians enough to give up everything he had for a chance to kill them. And he had a lot: a large house and outbuildings, a stable full of horses, a woodworking shop with expensive electric tools.

The 51-year-old carpenter was born on the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan, after Josef Stalin ordered the entire population of Chechnya into exile. Half of them died of cold, disease and hunger. But Khadayev found his way home. And when Chechnya tried to break away from Russia in 1994, he answered the call to war.

"I sold my elite horses," he said. "I bought a rifle, a submachine gun, a pistol and a grenade launcher."

These days, however, Khadayev isn't out fighting with the Chechen rebels. He's back home in this small farming village, though the only horse he has left is a work nag and there is no electricity to run his tools. He still hates the Russians -- but he has come to distrust the Chechen leaders even more.

Since the Russians began to hand over political power to Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov last year, he said, no one has felt safe.

"There will be no stability in Chechnya, ever, as long as he is in charge," Khadayev said. "Kadyrov's men are stealing cars. They're stealing people. ... We will never have any kind of order as long as we have a bandit in power."

Russia's strategy for Chechnya now appears to be: Leave the Chechen quagmire to the Chechens. In a policy that has been compared to a U.S. idea for Vietnam -- declare victory and leave -- Russia over the past year has been drawing down its forces in Chechnya and creating a government, headed by Kadyrov, that is ruling through intimidation and violence.

In the months since Kadyrov took power in an October election whose fairness was widely questioned, he has built a large security force whose members have been responsible for kidnappings, beatings, extortion and thefts on a scale nearly comparable to wartime, Chechen residents and human rights workers said.

While federal forces are focusing their efforts on wiping out remaining Chechen rebels, day-to-day security has largely been handed over to Kadyrov and several Chechen police forces controlled by his son and nephews. A feared new prison has been established in Kadyrov's hometown, Tsenteroi, and there are widespread reports of extrajudicial detentions and beatings there.

While federal troops remain responsible for most operations in rebel strongholds in the south, Kadyrov's forces are behind a large number of the disappearances in Grozny and surrounding towns, especially in the last few months, human rights workers said.

"The situation is changing. Now, the federal troops are not so cruel anymore. And it is Kadyrov's men who are displaying cruelty," said Natalya Yestimirova, an investigator with the Memorial human rights organization in Grozny. She ticked off dozens of reports of arrests and disappearances since the Oct. 5 presidential election.

"Kadyrov has achieved what [previous Chechen leaders] never managed to," she said. "He has full control of Chechnya and its oil -- and he is loved by the Kremlin."

Chechens feel betrayed. "They told us that after the election of Kadyrov we would see strong power, we would see law and order. Strange men would no longer be driving around at night in APCs, picking people up," said Ruslan, a 37-year-old resident of Kerla-Yurt.

"Now, you keep hearing from people, 'They took away two people today, they took away three people yesterday.' Soldiers still come in camouflage uniforms. They come in APCs. They come in masks. But now, they speak Chechen."

Kadyrov, a 52-year-old Islamic cleric who was a rebel leader before switching sides, has hinted that federal troops may be responsible for some of the disappearances and has vowed that his own security forces will stabilize the republic.

Chechen critics accuse Kadyrov of allowing his security forces to extract protection money from the republic's recovering oil industry and to benefit from the millions of dollars of reconstruction money flowing in from Moscow.

Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, is in charge of the presidential security force that officially numbers about 1,000 men, many of whom race around the capital in trademark metallic-colored cars with darkened windows and no license plates.

Kadyrov's nephews control members of a new street-patrol force known as the PPS and a security detail assigned to the republic's oil facilities. A Kadyrov loyalist now heads up the republic's elite OMON police force.

Khadayev, the carpenter, said he learned firsthand on Dec. 29 about the new security regime. He had stopped at the home of an acquaintance in Grozny, looking for a ride back to his village, when a group of men in camouflage gear and black masks raided the house.

"They started beating me with rifle butts. I offered no resistance, but they beat me anyway. I have no doubt that it was Chechens who arrested me. They were all speaking Chechen," he said.

Khadayev was held in a basement cell and released five days later. "Of course, it's a violation of human rights," he said. "Even now, I don't know where I was or who arrested me."

In Grozny, a 21-year-old university student named Anzor and his friend were on their way to a video game center downtown on Dec. 18 when an unmarked car full of men suddenly stopped in front of them, blocking their path.

When the two young men crossed the street, several men dressed in camouflage and black masks leaped out of the car, shoved them against a wall, kicked them and eventually shoved them into a stolen car, Anzor said. In the car, the men placed a hat over Anzor's eyes and began beating him with a truncheon. Later, they placed him and his friend at opposite corners of a large room and took turns kicking them and beating them with sticks.

"They said, 'Look, you are Wahhabis,'" a common way of referring to Islamic fundamentalist Chechen rebels, Anzor related. "They were speaking Chechen the whole time, but they sounded very illiterate, even for Chechens. They kept calling us devils. They called us scum, bastards. From time to time, they would shoot their guns between our feet and over our heads."

Gradually, it became apparent that one of Kadyrov's security officers said he had seen Anzor fighting with the rebels several years earlier. Six days after they were arrested, Anzor said, the chief officer decided the man was lying.

"He shook our hands and apologized," he said.