MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court today opened a libel case filed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov against an opposition newspaper he says damaged his reputation when it wrote he had murdered, tortured, and harmed fellow countrymen.
The case follows Kadyrov's victory in October 2009 when a Moscow court ordered Russian human rights group Memorial to retract its accusation that he had kidnapped and murdered its activist Natalia Estemirova in July.
Kadyrov is seeking 865,600 rubles ($28,480) from newspaper “Novaya gazeta,” where murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya had worked, and 100,000 rubles from its reporter Vyacheslav Izmailov, 55.
After two separatist wars since the mid-1990s, Muslim-dominated Chechnya now rests on a shaky peace. Rights groups say Kadyrov uses heavy-handed measures and has been involved in abductions and torture, charges he has repeatedly denied.
"The journalists could have easily gone down to Chechnya to do their homework and check the facts.... Instead they blamed the president," Kadyrov's lawyer Andrei Krasnenkov told the court.
Six articles published in “Novaya Gazeta” between May 2008 and February 2009, half of which were penned by Izmailov, accuse Kadyrov of murder, beatings, torture, threats of physical violence, extortion and involvement with a criminal organization, Kadyrov's lawyer Krasnenkov said in court.
The 33-year-old Chechen leader denies all those accusations, Krasnenkov said. The court may make a ruling on February 15.
"I'm proud the president of Chechnya has decided to take action against me. It means he has a high estimation of my work," Izmailov told Reuters.
During the court hearings, much attention was given to the article "Murder in Vienna," compiled by “Novaya Gazeta” editors, which links Kadyrov to the murder of his former bodyguard, Umar Israilov, in the Austrian capital in January 2009.
Krasnenkov denied those allegations in court, saying the newspaper had no proof to back up its claims.
Chechen exile Israilov had accused Kadyrov of participating in kidnappings and torture sessions in a complaint filed in the European Court of Human Rights in 2006.
Despite pledges by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to create a freer society, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia as the world's fourth most dangerous place for reporters, after Iraq, the Philippines, and Algeria.