SOCIETY

“Tumso’s broadcasts are watched with Kadyrov’s approval”. Muhammad Abdurakhmanov on the information war in Chechnya

Muhammad Abdurakhmanov is a representative of “Vayfond” – Chechen human rights association based in Sweden. He is seeking asylum in Europe due to persecution in his homeland just like his brother Tumso Abdurakhmanov – a critic of the Chechen authorities and video blogger. A few days ago, a court in Germany fully acquitted Muhammad of charges of distributing extremist materials: those concerned a repost of the Deutsche Welle publication on the supply of weapons to the Islamic State terrorist group and a video with a scene of violence. The court ruled that there was no corpus delicti in this case.

The acquitted one believes that the begetters of the case against him could have been the Russian special services or ideological opponents from among the Chechens in Europe.

Waiting for clarity with the status of an asylum seeker, Abdurakhmanov lives in Germany, is engaged in human rights protection and helps his brother with moderation of broadcasts on the YouTube channel.

According to Muhammad, after the Chechen authorities ordered state employees, including doctors and security officials, to write at least ten laudatory comments a month to the head of the republic Ramzan Kadyrov, bots began an invasion of his brother’s channel.

The escalating fight against negativity on the Internet in Chechnya comes against the backdrop of the recent high-profile killings of Kadyrov’s critics in Europe. On July 4, blogger Mamikhan Umarov was shot dead in the Austrian capital, he gained fame thanks to the resonant videos on YouTube and Chechen Imran Aliyev was found dead in February of this year in the French city of Lille – he also criticized the Chechen authorities on a video platform.

In an interview with Kavkaz.Realii, Muhammad Abdurakhmanov spoke about the possible reasons for his criminal prosecution – the struggle of the Chechen authorities against the dissent on the Internet and “trolls” on YouTube.

“The investigator hinted – it is a political case”

– Muhammad, you are known as a critic of Kadyrov’s regime, as a representative of Vayfond in Germany, as the brother of blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov and moderator of his broadcasts. Which of the following is closest to you?

– I combine it all. I take on everything with only one goal – to do as much good to my people and as much harm as possible to the dictatorial regime in Chechnya and Russia.

Refugees from Chechnya contact me as a representative of Vayfond in Germany. I understand their problems very well. My family and I went through the same: we overcame the fear of uncertainty and unsettlement in an unfamiliar place with a foreign language. In reality, everything turned out to be not so bad. Now my task is to pass on the experience to my fellow countrymen who moved to Europe.

– You were persecuted in Germany on criminal charges and you were completely acquitted. Could this speed up a positive decision by the authorities to grant you an asylum?

– I hope so. Recently, it seems to me that Germany has changed the attitude towards our family for the better. We won this court, my mother had a hearing regarding her asylum application. Now we are only waiting for an expert opinion that she is in danger in Russia. If her application is not denied, then I, too, following the logic, will receive refugee status. Our lawyer is confident that we will win. Of course, there is a threat that Germany will outplay and see the danger in me, as Poland did in Tumso’s case, announcing that he “poses a threat to the interests and security” of the country.

Kavkaz.Realii information note: Before the forced emigration, Tumso Abdurakhmanov lived in Grozny and held the position of deputy head of the Electrosvyaz company. In 2015, he was kidnapped by a relative of the head of Chechnya – Islam Kadyrov. After that, Abdurakhmanov left Russia and sought international protection in Georgia and then in Poland. Subsequently, a court in Warsaw for three times rejected his appeal to the decision of the Refugee Council denying him asylum. Currently, the blogger is in one of the EU countries, he does not disclose his location.

– It is not typical for Germany to prosecute for a repost on Facebook. Have you pondered the reasons for the persecution?

– The case was originally fabricated. I think the German law enforcement officers wanted to check me, they were looking for extremist motives. Perhaps, it was at the suggestion of the Russian special services or people in Europe who consider us to be their political opponents. These are well-known names, they are squabbling over the power [the governments of the separatist republic] of Ichkeria in exile. Perhaps, having collected all this data, the Germans drew ill conclusions about me.

The investigator in my case even hinted that it was political. He himself did not think that the case would drag on and did not want to testify against me.

– How did the assassination attempt on Tumso in Sweden in February this year affect you?

– Of course, after that I don’t feel safe. The attack on Tumso alarmed me greatly in terms of my own vulnerability. I realized that if the killers got to my brother, who took a ten times better care of safety and privacy, then I should take more measures.

Now I am monitoring my social circle more closely. I have no fear, but caution was added, I became more critical of others.

Kavkaz.Realii information note: On February 26, 2020, in an apartment in the Swedish city of Gävle, a man with a hammer attacked Tumso Abdurakhmanov and managed to inflict several blows on the head. Ruslan Mamaev, who came from Russia, is suspected in this case. According to him, the murder of the blogger was contracted to him by a certain Abdurakhman from Grozny. On March 1, two more Russians suspected of this crime were detained in Sweden.

Mobilizing state employees on YouTube

– Viewers write hundreds of comments on your brother’s YouTube channel. Is it difficult to moderate them?

– In recent weeks, Kadyrov’s bots have become very active. In our community they are called “KRAkhobots” – deriving from the initials Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov. These are the people who litter the live chat meant for questions and discussions. They send a stream of similar messages like: “Stop chatting there in Europe. If you are a man, come to Chechnya” or “Stop lying, everything is fine with us, we are satisfied with our leader.”

Since most of the Kadyrov’s people and their supporters are not very smart – appointments there are based on personal loyalty to the leadership – insults are poured into the chat, and broadcasts are being marked with dislikes.

In addition, they use foul language. Me and my partner, the second moderator, immediately understand where these commentators are from. We try to block the “trolls” and those who swear. It doesn’t matter in whose address the insult is. Even if it is addressed to our enemies, we do not leave obscenities as this does not correspond to our religious principles. I want to emphasize that we do not block criticism, even against Tumso, if it does not contain swear words.  

– With what do you associate the intensification of attacks by these bots on Tumso’s YouTube channel?

– It began after Kadyrov once again mobilized the Chechen state employees and called on to oppose all critics. He made an astonishing statement to his entourage. He said: “When the government changes, our enemies will come to you and seize your houses. You and I are in the same boat, and your relatives will take the rap”.

Gradually, he convinced his entourage that it was in their interests to fight against people like Tumso, Mansur Sadulaev (the head of the “Vayfond” human rights association – editor’s note) and others who have blogs that are oppositional [to Kadyrov’s policy].

This [appearance of bots] was also accelerated by the recent reshuffle in the Chechen government, when Akhmed Dudayev, the former director of the propaganda mouthpiece – the “Grozny” television channel, became the minister of information.

In Chechnya, they realized that they do not have enough resources to kill every blogger, although there is enough money for killers. But it is difficult, it takes time, you need to involve people. I think that on their agenda there is always the option of physical elimination of opponents – this is the easiest solution to the problem. In the meantime, they operate with propaganda and an army of forced bots: they compel employees of institutions to create accounts on social networks and write nasty things in the comments.

However, that could be a blessing in disguise. I recently read a comment that now the Chechens at the leadership level have been allowed to watch Tumso’s broadcasts because they have to check in with a dislike and report to their superiors. Previously, having his blog in bookmarks could cause suffering from the security forces in Chechnya, however, it is possible to watch it now with the approval of Kadyrov.

“Kadyrov has not decided who he is: the sultan or the head of the Russian region”

– During the pandemic, the deportation of refugees from Europe stopped, and now flights have partially resumed. According to your information, are refugees from the Caucasus being deported?

– For several months of quarantine, no one was deported. But the main stream of refugees in Germany consists of people from Syria who arrive from Greece and Italy. Compared to all others, there are not so many Caucasians in Europe. Now the borders are gradually opening, but I have not yet heard that someone was deported.

– Has the nature of requests to you as a human rights defender changed during the pandemic?

– The flow of messages from Chechnya has increased, because, during the quarantine, Kadyrov was given carte blanche in oppressing the people. He started going crazy, he just went mad, although he must observe the Constitution of the Russian Federation and its laws in Chechnya. Nevertheless, he decided to do it like in India and brought the policemen to the street to beat people with polypropylene pipes.

“Novaya” writes that in Chechnya, the security forces were given polypropylene pipes. With them, they stop cars and catch people without protective masks.

Video: “Novaya Gazeta”

It seems that Kadyrov has not decided who he is: the sultan or the head of the Russian region. He urged people to stay at home, and he himself with officials, clergy and guests from Dagestan ate barbecue with songs and dances. It was broadcast through local TV channels and his social networks. He just mocks people.

During the coronavirus quarantine, passers-by on the streets were detained even for going to the store and put in damp basements, kept without food or drink, and beaten with truncheons. If a person has not been sick before, then one can get out of these dungeons not only with COVID, but also with beaten kidneys. The measures taken against the violators of the quarantine were completely inadequate. In other countries, fines did the job perfectly well.

– How did you help in the case of requests from Chechnya?

– Some of the complaints related to a lack of money and even hunger. In the Caucasus, and in Russia as a whole, many people live from day to day. Today they have earned and today they have to spend on the family. The pandemic stopped almost all trade and business; many were left without income, with nothing to feed their children. We could only help by spreading information.

Those who were unlawfully persecuted were advised to leave the republic. People often don’t realize how serious the situation is, they think that everything will be okay. We thought so ourselves when we left. Yes, it’s hard to leave everything behind overnight. But there are no grounds for getting your hopes up. In Chechnya, problems with authorities do not end well.

***

The Kavkaz.Realii correspondent was unable to contact the Minister of Information of Chechnya Akhmed Dudayev to comment on the information about the bots. Within a few days, he did not respond to calls.

On July 15, during an off-site meeting of the government, Kadyrov said that all state employees in Chechnya should be subscribed to the accounts of the Grozny State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company on social networks, and before that he instructed officials to intensify the fight against “ideologists of extremism and Western values.” Dudayev was to supervise the implementation of this task.

Source: Kavkaz.Realii

Translated by Vayfond

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