The widow of a Chechen man who was gunned down earlier this month in a Vienna suburb says her husband was an informant for Austrian security agencies and that police were examining his cell phone, which she said had recordings and other possible evidence.
Zarema Umarova spoke to RFE/RL on July 24, a day after relatives of her slain husband, Mamikhan Umarov, issued an unusual video appeal in which they claimed responsibility for his killing and appeared to absolve Chechnya's notorious strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, of blame.
Umarova's comments add further details about the circumstances of the killing -- the latest in a series of attacks that have targeted Chechen refugees who fled Russia for various European countries.
The killings have spooked Chechnya's diaspora and renewed focus on Kadyrov, who has run the Russian region for more than a decade and been accused of human rights abuses and ordering hit squads to target expatriate Chechens.
Austrian police have arrested two Chechen asylum seekers as part of their investigation into the July 4 killing in the Vienna suburb of Gerasdorf. Austrian officials have said a political motive or a personal argument could be behind the killing.
Umarov, who went by the name Anzor as well as the alias Martin Beck, was a former Chechen separatist and critic of Kadyrov. He settled in Austria in 2005 and received asylum two years later.
Umarov frequently accused Russian security forces of carrying out the assassinations of former Chechen separatists.
In February, he created his own YouTube channel, posting 30 videos, with the last one uploaded on July 2. Some of the videos included audio recordings of what Umarov said were officials discussing assassination plots.
Most of his videos, which are in the Chechen language, end with insulting remarks about Kadyrov, his family, and his associates.
In the interview with RFE/RL, Umarova confirmed Austrian news reports that Umarov had been an informant for Austrian security agencies for some years. And she hoped that the phone in police investigators' custody would help focus the investigation.
"It contains a lot of information, evidence," she said. "Thanks to this, very soon, many people will find themselves in the dock."
She said that in 2009, four years after Umarov first arrived in Austria, and two years after he received political asylum, he was shaken by a series of killings, including the shooting of one of Kadyrov's former bodyguards, Umar Israilov, in Austria. A brother of Umarov and two of his in-laws were killed during this time in Chechnya.
That prompted him to begin cooperating with Austrian law enforcement, Umarova said, a move that ostracized him from the wider Chechen expatriate community, where many considered him a traitor.
Umarova said the Austrian authorities had offered her husband police protection, but he declined.
That same year, the couple's six children were taken into protective custody by Austrian social-welfare workers, who feared they were in danger, she said. Three of the children have since been reunited with her.
In 2017, Umarov was among 22 Chechens who were arrested on weapons charges in Vienna. Austrian media also reported he was suspected in an extortion and insurance-fraud case involving a blown-up pizzeria. He served two years in prison until late summer 2019, when he was conditionally released.
Umarova said she and her family have been under police protection since the murder, and that she, like Umarov, blamed the Austrian authorities for not doing more to protect Chechen refugees like Israilov.
"He could not understand why they allowed Israilov's murder. They knew the killers were inside the country, knew about the looming danger, but did nothing to prevent it," she told RFE/RL.
"I also have a big complaint to the authorities: why didn't they save my husband?" Umarova said. "They are no less guilty of killing him."
The day before Umarova spoke to RFE/RL, a group of men who identified themselves as members of Umarov's extended family posted a video on YouTube saying they "had to stop" Umarov from making "unforgivable insults," which they suggested violated Chechen social norms.
The relatives apologized to Kadyrov and "repented before all Chechens for the unforgivable insults he had inflicted on the whole people."
The circumstances of the video's appearance were not immediately clear. In the past, people who have criticized Chechnya's leadership, or relatives of those accused of crimes in Chechnya, have been forced to make public apologies.
In 2016, a social worker who accused Kadyrov of overseeing endemic corruption was publicly upbraided by the Chechen leader on state TV. And relatives of people accused of crimes are often pressured to take responsibility, or apologize or even denounce other relatives, as a way to protect family honor under Chechen traditions.
Collective punishment, where an entire family is punished for alleged crimes of one member is also common, according to human rights groups.
Attacks Across Europe
The attack on Umarov was the fourth in the past year involving men who were known critics of Kadyrov or had fought against Russian forces during the Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
Last August, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen separatist fighter who had fled from Georgia to Germany, was shot dead in Berlin. German prosecutors have filed murder charges against a Russian national in that case and accused the Russian government of ordering the killing.
In January, a blogger named Imran Aliyev was found in the French city of Lille with scores of stab wounds. Prosecutors have identified a Russian-born man who returned to Chechnya following the killing as the prime suspect in that case.
In February, a blogger named Tumso Abdurakhmanov was attacked in Sweden, but he said he overpowered his alleged attacker and turned him over to the authorities. That case remains under investigation.
The previous March, the head of the Chechen parliament had declared a blood feud against Abdurakhmanov.
Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya since 2007. A former Chechen militant who fought against Russian forces in the first Chechen war, Kadyrov has been accused by Russian and international rights activists of numerous human rights violations, including torture, kidnapping, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and the assassination of personal and political enemies both in Russia and abroad.