Exclusive: Dissident says he was tortured for challenging Vladimir Putin

From London to Vienna to Berlin, exiled opponents of the Russian state are increasingly fearing for their safety. Not since the Cold War have Russian operatives been accused of such violence nad [sic] intimidation abroad. The story of one man who says he was tortured for challenging Putin

On a warm morning in early August, a 68-year-old Chechen man named Said-Emin Ibragimov packed up his fishing gear and walked to his favorite spot on the west bank of the river that runs through Strasbourg, the city of his exile in eastern France. Ibragimov, who was a minister in the breakaway Chechen government in the 1990s, needed to calm his nerves, and his favorite way to relax was to watch the Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine, flow by as he waited for a fish to bite.

Ibragimov had reason to be nervous. The previous month he had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes in a criminal complaint he had sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and to the Kremlin. Ibragimov had taken five years to compile evidence of what he considered crimes committed during Russia’s two wars against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya. During the second Chechen war, which Putin oversaw in 1999–2000, Russia bombarded the Chechen capital of Grozny and killed thousands of civilians. The U.N. later called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth.”

Ibragimov, who fled to France in 2001, was living out the last years of his life in political asylum but had continued to agitate against the Putin government, staging hunger strikes and sometimes one-man protests at sites like the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He had made his home in what he thought was a safe place—Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Court of Human Rights, and a city far from the countries on Russia’s borders over which Putin seemed increasingly determined to exert the Kremlin’s influence. But in his decade as a politician in Chechnya, Ibragimov had dealt with numerous threats, beatings and attempts to kill him, so what happened about an hour after he sat down on his folding chair on the banks of the Ill did not, in retrospect, entirely surprise him. As he stared at the nylon line he had cast into the sluggish current of the river, he heard a rustling in the trees behind him and, before he could turn, he felt a heavy blow to the back of the skull. It knocked him unconscious.

When he awoke, he tells TIME, he found himself blindfolded and in the custody of at least three men, all of them speaking Russian. Calmly at first, they urged him to stop “defaming their President,” but when Ibragimov told them in response that he “does not take orders from thugs,” the men began to beat and torture him, he says. The abuse continued over the course of nearly two days.

Ibragimov says the men spoke Russian with no accents—“like Muscovites,” he recalls, “definitely not Chechens.” He does not know who the men were, but from their accents, their words and their actions, he believes them to have been agents of the Russian government.

Ten days after the abduction, Ibragimov showed TIME the wounds he claims the men inflicted. Deep, yellowing lesions marked his chest—the result, he said, of lit cigarettes being pressed into his skin over and over again. Lifting the hem of his pants, he revealed several holes that had been gouged into his right calf by what had felt like metal spikes. The wounds were still oozing blood into the bandages doctors had applied when he later sought treatment. “They never let up,” he says of his attackers. “The torture was constant, constant, and it left me in no state to consider why this was happening.”

Even in major European cities like London, Vienna and Berlin, opponents of the Russian state have felt little safety in exile during Putin’s tenure as President. Dissidents and their European host governments have also found that acts of murder and intimidation can be hard to prosecute when their trails seem to lead back to Russia. In August, Russian authorities formally refused to cooperate with a British public inquiry into the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who was poisoned to death in London after he publicly accused Putin of mass murder. On his deathbed, Litvinenko said only Putin could have ordered the mission to kill him with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium, which had been slipped into the whistle-blower’s tea. The Kremlin denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder.

That alarms some of Putin’s opponents who live in exile in Europe. “It is something I have to live with,” says Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who spent a decade in prison in Russia after being convicted of tax evasion and fraud. (Khodorkovsky had become increasingly politically active and critical of Putin in the run-up to his arrest in 2003, and human-rights groups consider his prosecution to have been politically motivated.) Upon his release in December, Khodorkovsky took refuge in Switzerland and has continued organizing against the Putin regime from abroad, launching an online forum in September to help coordinate the Russian dissident movement and its supporters. While promoting the project on a recent visit to Berlin, he tells TIME he believes that his life is still in danger. “If Putin makes a decision to physically eliminate me, it will not be easy for me to survive, not even in Europe,” he says. “I accept this.” All the more so, he says, since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine “untied the hands” of the military hawks who have Putin’s ear in the Kremlin. “In his inner circle, there are people who are more and more inclined to the use of force, and we see that they carry out such operations,” Khodorkovsky says. “In Ukraine this was very clear.”

In Western Europe, officials say many operations conducted by agents of the Russian government go unnoticed or unreported. “The Russian security services themselves—not only the military, civilian and police, but also their proxies because they use a lot of proxies—are currently very, very active in the Western world,” says Arnaud Danjean, who previously served in the French military intelligence agency and now chairs the Subcommittee on Security and Defense at the Strasbourg-based European Parliament. Though Danjean had not been aware of the specific attack against Ibragimov, he says it would hardly be a novelty for Russia. “When you have a former KGB [agent] as the head of state, it is no surprise that you have these things occurring.”

Full article: Exclusive: Dissident says he was tortured for challenging Vladimir Putin (TIME)

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