Accessibility links

Breaking News

Nemtsov: A Tidy Case Gets Messy

Zaur Dadayev, charged with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, now reportedly denies the charges.
Zaur Dadayev, charged with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, now reportedly denies the charges.

Amid growing suspicions that yet another assassination of a high-profile Kremlin critic would go unsolved, Russian authorities rounded up five men just 10 days after the February 27 killing of Boris Nemtsov, parading them in front of cameras at a Moscow court house.

But now, multiple reports about what just days ago was presented as an open-and-shut case are raising questions about who was the crime's main backer -- and pointing to a potential turf battle between different sectors of Russia's security services.

Here is a rundown of the new allegations.

Chief Suspect Retracts Confession

Russian authorities say Zaur Dadayev, the prime suspect in the case, confessed to Nemtsov's murder. But according to a member of Russia's official human rights council and a reporter for the normally Kremlin-friendly Moskovsky Komsomolets, who observed the council members' inspection of the prison conditions, Dadayev now denies the charges and claims he admitted guilt only under duress.

Dadayev long served in the elite Sever Battalion -- an anti-insurgent force backed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- and he reportedly claimed that he agreed to confess only to protect a former underling.

"At the moment of detention I was with a friend, with my former subordinate, Ruslan Yusupov, and they said if I confess then he'd be freed," Dadayev said, according to the transcript of his interview with rights commission member Andrei Babushkin. "I thought he'd live and I'd be taken to Moscow alive."

He said he had heard that another suspect, Beslan Shavanov, had "supposedly" blown himself up after authorities attempted to arrest him and implied that he feared he could die in similarly mysterious circumstances.

Dadayev also told Babushkin that he had asked his family to find a lawyer for him, but had heard nothing since. This seems to provide context to a Time magazine report that said Dadayev's family had asked for the help of both a lawyer and a human rights activist only for them both to be told separately and without explanation that their services were no longer needed.

Babushkin also met with brothers Anzor and Shagid Gubashev, who say they were not involved in Nemtsov's murder. Shagid says he was subject to beatings after being detained in Ingushetia, while Anzor, despite having wounds on his wrists and legs, says he has "no complaints whatsoever."

Authorities say Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev -- one driving the getaway car and the other doing the shooting -- carried out the murder while Shagid Gubashev, Shavanov, and two others were accomplices.

A Mysterious 'Ruslan' And A Hit List

At the same time as the chief suspect was retracting his confession, Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian weekly, released an explosive report claiming authorities have an unofficial suspect and it is not Dadayev, but a high-ranking member of the Chechen security services who the paper identified only by his first name, Ruslan.

According to the paper, Ruslan is in charge of a "hit list" that includes a who's-who of opposition and independent media figures, including the chief editor of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, Aleksei Venediktov, exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and "probably" socialite-turned-journalist Ksenia Sobchak. The list also included Nemtsov.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Sergei Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta's chief editor, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was briefed about Ruslan on March 4. And the March 10 Novaya Gazeta report says "dozens, if not hundreds," of security personnel are aware of him.

Charlie Hebdo As A Kadyrov Smokescreen?

Whether the ringleader of the Nemtsov murder is Dadayev, Ruslan, or someone else, all reports so far appear to be leading to high-level figures in Chechnya, and thereby linking to Kadyrov himself.

After Dadayev's arrest, Kadyrov posted an impassioned defense of the chief suspect, calling him a "true Russian patriot." He wrote that as a pious Muslim, Dadayev was shocked by the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly.

The post seemed to imply that if Dadayev had organized the crime he had done so as revenge for Nemtsov taking a provocative stance in support of the magazine following the January 7 mass shooting that killed 11 people at Charlie Hebdo's Paris office.

Indeed, this was a theory that Russia's security services had put forward just hours after Nemtsov was gunned down.

But while he did speak out strongly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Nemtsov was never known to have criticized Islam.

He did, however, spar frequently and publicly with Kadyrov.

In January, shortly after Kadyrov had appeared to threaten Venediktov for posting a poll about Charlie Hebdo on the Ekho Moskvy website, Nemtsov admonished the Chechen leader on Facebook, saying he should be punished under Russia's criminal code. (Kadyrov also called Khodorkovsky his "personal enemy" after the latter tweeted a call for all publications to publish a Charlie Hebdo caricature of the Prophet Muhammad.)

A Battle Between FSB And Kadyrov?

Some of the fresh reports that undermine the authorities' case against the five suspects come from normally Kremlin-friendly media outlets.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, which reported Dadayev's retraction, earlier also published an unsourced report alleging he had been monitoring Nemtsov since last fall. If true, this would rule out the Charlie Hebdo motive.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, linking to that report, suggested that perhaps Russia's FSB security service wanted the investigation to continue.

A report in the Moscow Times details alleged unhappiness at the FSB over Putin's close relationship with Kadyrov and the broad powers the Chechen leader is able to wield.

Indeed, today, LifeNews, a website with ties to Russia's security services, released a video that it says provides an alibi for Tamerlan Eskerkhanov, one of the alleged accomplices.

The video, however, shows only that Eskerkhanov was working at a nightclub at the time Nemtsov was killed, and does not in itself rule out his possible participation in the planning of the crime.

  • 16x9 Image

    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.