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Mystery Over Missing Chechen Singer's Fate Deepens After Video Claims He's In Germany

Relatives of Zhelimkhan Bakayev say the singer, who lives in Moscow, has been missing since August 8.
Relatives of Zhelimkhan Bakayev say the singer, who lives in Moscow, has been missing since August 8.

For weeks the family of a well-known singer in Chechnya has pressed for information about his whereabouts after he disappeared in the southern Russian region in early August.

Now, government-controlled media in Chechnya, where rights groups accuse regional security forces of abductions and grave human rights abuses, say singer Zelimkhan Bakayev has been found -- in Germany.

But the evidence for this claim by the state television channel Grozny-TV on September 24 appears to consist solely of two YouTube videos published earlier in the day showing a man resembling Bakayev talking about what a great time he is having in Germany.

Those videos, the only two posted by a YouTube user with the Russian-language handle Artyom Lebedev, have already raised suspicions that they were staged somewhere other than in Germany, suggesting an effort to obscure Bakayev's real whereabouts.

The mystery surrounding Bakayev's disappearance, and sudden reappearance, comes amid long-running concerns about alleged abuses by Chechen security forces, including disappearances, torture, and kidnappings. It also follows allegations of a campaign of abuse and torture against gay men in the region, a campaign that was first highlighted by the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

'Not A Wahhabi Or A Terrorist'

Relatives of Bakayev say the singer, who lives in Moscow, has been missing since August 8. One relative told RFE/RL on August 16 that Bakayev arrived in the Chechen capital, Grozny, earlier that month to attend his sister's wedding.

With questions mounting about his whereabouts, a senior official in Chechnya said days later that Bakayev was safe and would "appear soon," though he did not say how he knew that and gave no information about the singer's location or condition.

"The lad is not a Wahhabi or a terrorist, he has never been involved in any problems. No law enforcement has taken him; nobody needs him at all," Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya's press and information minister, said on August 18. "He will not go anywhere. He did not have any enemies."

Fake Furnishings?

In the YouTube videos published on September 24, a man is shown speaking from a room with the curtains drawn and a table featuring a can bearing the logo of Drive Me, an energy drink brand sold in Russia by global beverage giant PepsiCo.

The website of PepsiCo's Germany operations does not list Drive Me as one of its local brands there, and the Russian news outlet Mediazona, citing PepsiCo's Russia operations, reported that the brand is not sold in Germany.

Mediazona also noted that the room features a couch produced by a Moscow furniture company.

Meanwhile, a news site in Russia's Novgorod Oblast quoted a furniture manufacturer in the region as saying that a rocking chair seen in the video was from its collection, and that it ships its furniture to Chechnya.

The portal,, quoted the firm as saying, however, that it had featured its products at a Cologne exhibition in 2015, and that some of its furniture may have ended up in the European Union via Lithuania.

At no point in the two videos does the man, identified in the teaser description as Bakayev, say specifically where in Germany he is -- just that he arrived in mid-August.

Alleged Abuses

Under the rule of strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya has largely moved beyond the open warfare and violent insurgency that ravaged the southern region since the early 1990s. Kadyrov has overseen a building boom in Grozny that has transformed the city.

But Kremlin critics say Russian President Vladimir Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule Chechnya as he sees fit in order to stamp out separatism and violence in the mainly Muslim region.

In April, Novaya Gazeta reported that security forces were rounding up gay men and torturing them. Following that report, rights groups and other media outlets -- including RFE/RL -- spoke to Chechens who said they had fled these alleged abuses.

Kadyrov and other top officials in Chechnya have denounced the reports as attempts to smear the regional government.

Novaya Gazeta has also reported that 27 people may have been executed without trial in January after allegedly being arrested following armed clashes with police in December.

'I Always Knew Where He Was Going'

Earlier this month, Bakayev's mother appealed to Kadyrov to help find her son. A regional Interior Ministry source told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that no criminal case would be opened into his disappearance because he "left by himself."

This narrative is now being publicly embraced by authorities in Chechnya.

The Grozny-TV report about the YouTube videos, in which he is seen smoking a hookah, said Bakayev "is alive, healthy, and by all appearances, having a good time."

The report suggested "opposition media" were playing up Bakayev's disappearance in a bid to discredit Chechnya and "slander" the region's leadership. The report was shared on Instagram by the Chechen branch of the Russian Interior Ministry.

But a friend of Bakayev's told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service after the YouTube videos appeared that the singer "didn't have any plans to leave" and did not have a Schengen visa allowing him entry into the European Union.

"If he wanted to leave, then why didn't he return home first?" the friend added on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Just days before the YouTube videos were published, Bakayev's mother said her son "always gave a warning if he planned to go somewhere."

"I always knew where he was going," Malika Bakayeva told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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

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