Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is under fire for publicly humiliating his detractors and meting out collective punishment against their relatives, and he's not taking the criticism well.
Kadyrov's penchant for publicly shaming people who dare challenge him or the man who put him in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not new.
But a series of particularly vicious incidents, compounded by threats of retribution against the families of Chechens abroad who have protested against Kadyrov's actions, have caused outrage among both Chechens and human rights advocates.
Chechen emigres in Oslo, Norway, held a rally on January 2 to protest Kadyrov's ruthless methods and to defend Ayshat Inayeva, a social worker who was publicly upbraided by the Chechen leader after accusing him of overseeing endemic corruption in the republic in Russia's North Caucasus.
Inayeva, who had complained about being forced by her boss to cough up an extra 3,000 rubles ($42) from her paycheck every month after paying off her utility bills, was reprimanded by Kadyrov in a face-to-face meeting several days later on state-run television.
Her husband, other high-ranking officials, her boss, and the television anchor also took part in the dressing down.
Visibly mortified, Inayeva took back everything she had said.
'A Brother Answers For His Brother'
"Moscow has no other solution than to harshly punish and coerce people," says Akhmed Gisayev, a Chechen human rights activist who organized the Oslo rally. "Russian authorities are on their last leg in Chechnya. No one has the right to criticize them or Putin's henchman, Kadyrov."
According to Gisayev, about 150 people attended the Oslo protest, some of them holding placards with slogans such as "Stop Putin's terror in Chechnya."
A similar rally took place in Vienna on December 24 during which demonstrators denounced the reprisals against people who have criticized Kadyrov and his government.
Kadyrov has reacted angrily to the Vienna rally. In remarks broadcast on regional television in Chechnya on December 30, he pledged to track down the families of Chechens who attended the protest and pressure them into silencing their relatives in Austria.
"Our custom is that a brother answers for his brother," Kadyrov said. "I gave instructions to find out whether they have brothers and fathers, which clan they belong to, where they were born, and who they are."
He vowed to use "every available resource" to ensure that families in Chechnya "sorted things out" with their kin abroad. "If they don't make any decisions, we will demand that they do," he warned.
Gisayev says collective punishment has long been enforced in Chechnya – first by Russian forces against civilians, during the two separatist wars the region has endured since the 1991 Soviet collapse, and now by Kadyrov against fellow Chechens who defy him.
Gisayev fled to Norway after his colleague from the Memorial Human Rights Center, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted and killed in 2009. He says his family in Chechnya has since been under intense pressure from the authorities.
"My brother, my father, and my mother all received visits," Gisayev says. "They were asked why I left, why I was making statements, why they weren't telling me to stop. This happened to all my colleagues from Memorial and the Committee Against Torture," another rights group.
Sins Of The Youth
Relatives of suspected militants have also been subjected to collective punishment under Kadyrov, a former rebel whom Putin has relied on for nearly a decade to keep a lid on the restive region and suppress separatism.
After an assault in Grozny that the authorities said left 14 police officers, 10 militants, and a civilian dead in December 2014, Kadyrov pledged to destroy the homes of those believed to have taken part in the attack. On Instagram, he also said their relatives "will be swiftly expelled from Chechnya with no right to return."
Kadyrov's statement immediately sparked an outcry from human rights advocates, who said it violated the Russian Constitution and Russia's international obligations.
Activists said at least eight homes were torched or razed following Kadyrov's threat, four of which they said did not belong to gunmen whose bodies were among those identified after the fighting.
Amid the uproar, Putin warned that nobody had the right to “engage in extrajudicial reprisals,” but he also said that Kadyrov's “emotional” response to the attack was “understandable.” Kadyrov has faced no apparent consequences, and activists say he continues to flout the Russian Constitution with impunity.
According to Gisayev, many Chechens are scandalized by the public shaming of Inayeva, which he describes as a deep insult to Chechen tradition. "People are fed up with what is taking place in Chechnya," he says. "Violence is exerted on women and on the elderly. Elderly people are traditionally treated with huge respect in Caucasus nations."
'Putin Is My Father, My Grandfather, And My Tsar'
Several Kadyrov critics have posted video clips online denouncing the onslaught against Inayeva and Adam Dikayev, another citizen who was humiliated for criticizing the Chechen leader.
"A Chechen woman appealed to you through WhatsApp and shared her distress," Akhmed Alikhadzhiyev, a Chechen activist in Ukraine, told Kadyrov in a video appeal. "Instead of listening to her, you dragged her on television and started shaming her in front of the whole world, you encroached on her husband's honor."
In an Instagram posting last month, Dikayev had poured scorn on a recent video shared by Kadyrov in which he can be seen working out in a Putin T-shirt. "These events go back 15 years. Not 150, not 300, but 15!" he wrote, apparently referring to the period in which Putin has been in power. "And the tsar runs on the treadmill with the song 'My best friend is President Putin.'"
Shortly after Dikayev's post, which has since been deleted, a video was posted on Instagram showing him walking on a treadmill with no pants on -- a particularly stinging humiliation in Chechnya.
Dikayev said that he had been wrong to criticize the government and that he had learned his lesson. "From now on," he says in the video, "Putin is my father, my grandfather, and my tsar."
The clip drew the ire of many Chechens including Apti Batalov, a former aide to Chechnya's late separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov.
"Taking the trousers off a young Chechen man because he said Putin is a pederast is such a disgrace," Batalov, who lives in London, said in a video published on YouTube. "What can be more disgraceful than that?"
"You've turned this people into slaves," he told Kadyrov. "You're drinking the blood of this people, you and these beasts that surround you. Why are you torturing these people? You won't be forgiven, all this won't be forgotten."
A Chechen activist now living in France, Isa Akhyadov, has also denounced the onslaught against Inayeva in an angry posting on WhatsApp that has been widely shared in Chechnya.
Retaliation was quick. Just days later, his brother and another relative in Chechnya appeared on local television flanked by several officials, where they denounced his opposition activities and publicly disowned him.
Gisayev, however, insists that Inayeva and Dikayev can consider themselves lucky. "The cases of Ayshat Inayeva and Adam Dikayev ended with the best outcome that I've seen so far for people who dared criticize the authorities," he said. "Yes, they were publicly humiliated and subjected to huge pressure, but they stayed alive."