A chief suspect in the killing of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has reportedly retracted his confession, suggesting it was made under duress, and a rights activist said there are signs he was tortured.
The Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) quoted former Chechen police officer Zaur Dadayev as saying he confessed to killing Nemtsov because law enforcement agents promised to release a former colleague who was being held with him after his arrest.
Dadayev also suggested he feared he would be killed if he did not confess to killing Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin on February 27 in the highest-profile slaying of a foe of President Vladimir Putin in years.
"They kept shouting, 'Did you kill Nemtsov?' I answered that I did not," MK quoted Dadayev as saying.
Dadayev, who until recently was a deputy commander of an Interior Ministry unit in the volatile North Caucasus province of Chechnya, said he had been detained along with a former subordinate, Ruslan Yusupov.
"They said if I confess, they will free him. I agreed. I thought, 'I'll save him, and they'll bring me to Moscow alive,'" Dadayev was quoted as saying.
MK said its correspondent visited Dadayev and two other suspects in pretrial detention along with members of a public commission that monitors conditions for inmates.
AFP news agency quoted Andrei Babushkin, a member of the Kremlin human rights council who visited Dadayev in his cell, as saying there were "reasons that lead us to believe Zaur Dadayev confessed under torture."
He said he had seen "numerous wounds" on Dadayev's body.
AP quoted Babushkin as saying that Dadayev had been "tortured by those who detained him" and later taken to the federal Investigative Committee, where "he was forced to confess."
Dadayev is one of two suspects charged in Nemtsov's killing. Three other suspects, also from Chechnya or neighboring Ingushetia, are in custody but have not been charged.
At an arraignment hearing on March 8 in Moscow, the judge said that Dadayev had confessed to involvement in Nemtsov's slaying, but he did not admit guilt in the courtroom.
The Investigative Committee said on February 28 that one possible motive for Nemtsov's killing could have been anger over his position on the deadly Islamist militant attack in January on Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, defended Dadayev in a statement posted on Instagram on March 8, calling him a "true patriot" and a deeply pious Muslim who was shocked by the cartoons.
Lawyers, relatives, and allies of Nemtsov have said they do not believe that anger over Charlie Hebdo or Nemtsov's position on the issue was the motive in his killing, and several Kremlin critics have pointed the finger at Putin and his government.
They fear an honest investigation may not be conducted because it might lead too close to the Kremlin.
Putin and the Kremlin have denied any involvement, calling the killing a "provocation" and suggesting it could have been carried out to blacken the reputation of the president and government.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini added to Western calls for justice and echoed Kremlin critics' statements that Putin's government shares the blame no matter who pulled the trigger.
Speaking to the European Parliament on March 11, Mogherini said the "Russian authorities have not only the duty to conduct full and transparent investigation" into Nemtsov's killing, but "they also have to put an end to the climate of suspicion, hatred, and intolerance for diversity of opinion."
Mogherini said that "the defense of basic freedoms" is "a statutory obligation for all members of the United Nations."
Dadayev told the activists he had no complaints about his treatment in pretrial detention at the Lefortovo jail in Moscow, according to MK, but showed his visitors marks from handcuffs and ankle chains and said he had a cloth sack over his head for two days following his detention.
The newspaper quoted two other suspects, brothers Shagid and Anzor Gubashev, as saying they had been abused before being brought to Lefortovo, after being detained in the North Caucasus.
The newspaper quoted Shagid Gubashev as saying law enforcement officers who did not identify themselves "beat and tortured me" and "beat my brother."
He said they had "demanded that I say we killed Nemtsov."
"We are innocent," Shagid
"We are innocent," Gubashev, who said he and his brother are second cousins of Dadayev, was quoted as saying.
The Investigative Committee said later on March 11 that Babushkin and a journalist accompanying him, Eva Merkacheva, had been allowed to visit Dadayev's cell only to see the conditions under which he was being held, and had broken the law by publicizing details about the case.
"Such actions may be regarded as interference in the investigation," it said in a statement, adding that both Babushkin and the journalist would be questioned by investigators.
The committee did not confirm or deny Babushkin's claims that Dadayev was mistreated.
Amnesty International released a statement late March 11 expressing concern about threats to bring criminal charges against Babushkin and Merkacheva.
"Threatening legal action against those who report a crime as serious as torture is ludicrous," John Dalhuisen, the Europe and Central Asian Director at Amnesty said.
With reporting by Moskovsky Komsomolets, AP, and AFP