The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has vowed to help Chechens who are fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria and Iraq to return home.
"We are doing everything possible so as not to swell the ranks of these devils," Kadyrov told journalists at a press conference on March 3.
Kadyrov said that his men were working not only in the Chechen Republic but "also there, on the ground," in Syria, although he did not elaborate.
"We are bringing back those who have realized their mistakes and we are passing them on to the courts," the Chechen leader said, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Kadyrov sees himself as playing a key and very personal role in the fight against extremism and terrorism in the Chechen Republic, and reacted with anger to the issue of Russian nationals from the Chechen republic becoming radicalized and fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The Chechen leader, who initially denied that Chechens were fighting in Syria at all and recently insisted that most Chechens in that country are from the diaspora in Europe, has even exchanged insults with Chechen militants in Syria.
Kadyrov said that his main aim was to "save at least one human life, if possible."
"We have no intention of destroying even those who raised weapons against us. I have negotiated with many militants and, more often than not, managed to convince them to lay down their weapons," Kadyrov was quoted as saying.
Kadyrov's words make more sense when their full context is known. Curiously, the RIA Novosti report chose to omit that context, which was that the main topic of Kadyrov's March 3 press conference had been the March 2 surrender of Zelimkhan Magomadov, a Chechen militant who had been surrounded by police on the southern outskirts of Grozny.
Kadyrov spoke with Magomadov -- who was known as the "Emir of the Chechen Plains" -- personally via the militant's cellphone, and persuaded him to step down, according to news reports.
Magomadov's decision to give himself up after some persuasion from Kadyrov was seen as a major coup for the Chechen leader, who wrote about the incident on a March 3 post on his Instagram account. "Having listened to me, having believed my words, he laid down his arms. I strictly warned that he is to be treated in strict accordance with the law," Kadyrov wrote.
Although the Chechen leader was quick to proclaim that he wanted to persuade Chechens to return home from militant groups in Syria, just as he had persuaded Magomadov to surrender, his law enforcement system has been accused of treating returnees far too harshly. Some in Chechnya have even warned that this heavy-handedness is counterproductive, because it actually deters those militants who may want to return home from Syria.
The head of a Chechen NGO, who spoke to local news agency the Caucasus Knot last month on condition of anonymity, said imposing harsh prison terms on those returning from Syria would "result in a drastic reduction in the number of returnees."
Chechnya's Supreme Court last month slashed the sentence of a 22-year-old Chechen man who had been convicted of fighting in Syria from two years to eight months. The defendant, Said Mazhayev, admitted fighting in Syria but his lawyers and family argued that the court should have taken into account as a mitigating circumstance the fact that he voluntarily turned himself in.
Mazhayev even made an appearance on Chechen television, where he talked about what was "really happening" in Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk