Caught in the middle: Zaur Dadaev & the murder of Boris Nemtsov

On the night of 27 February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was walking with his girlfriend on Moscow’s  Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge when someone fired at least six shots into Nemtsov’s back. A car quickly pulled up, providing a getaway for the shooter. The biggest political assassination to happen during Vladimir Putin’s presidency happened in the shadow of the Kremlin, the most secure place in all of Moscow.

Six days after Nemtsov was killed, investigators announced they had arrested five men in connection with the crime. Not surprising to Russia-watchers, the suspects were Chechen. Two of the men, Zaur Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev, were charged with the murder. The other three, Shagid Gubashev (Anzor’s brother), Tamerlan Eskerkhanoz, and Khamat Bakhayev, were charged as accomplices. Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev were both members of Battalion Sever, part of the ‘kadyrovtsy,’ paramilitary Chechen police named after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Dadaev was deputy commander of Sever until he reportedly stepped down the day after Nemtsov’s murder.

Almost immediately following Dadaev’s arrest, Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov made a statement on his Instagram account calling Dadaev a “as a patriot of Russia,” “a profoundly religious man,” and implied that Zaur may have murdered Nemtsov over the politician’s comments following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. It was at this time, on 8 March, that word came out that Zaur Dadaev had confessed to the crime.

Within a week of Dadaev’s confession came word that it may have been made under duress. Russian Human Rights Council member Andrei Babushkin reported that Dadaev had wounds on his wrists from handcuffs and marks on his legs from rope. He also claimed that Dadaev said he had been tortured with electricity and that he had signed a confession only in exchange for the release of a friend who was arrested with him.

Nearly a month after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a new witness stepped forward. Previously, only Nemtsov’s girlfriend had been the only witness but she claimed not to have seen the shooter who came at them from behind. This new witness, identified only as Yevgeny, said he was walking behind the couple, wearing headphones and looking at his phone. He said he didn’t hear the shooting but looked up right after to see Nemtsov on the ground and the shooter leaving the scene. Most importantly, Yevgeny provided a description of the shooter: medium height, slim build with dark, possibly wavy hair about four centimeters in length. This is not a description of Dadaev, who is tall and athletically built. Yevgeny also gave a different description of the getaway car.

During the first week of April, news came out that Dadaev had been arrested in Ingushetia but unidentified men and held for two days in an unknown location. Dadaev said he was not told why he was picked up, but that it was at this time he was “told what to say and how to say it.” At the same time, Unian posted a story claiming Dadaev had confessed and was cooperating with officials despite earlier reports of him pleading not guilty and having an alibi.

Nemtsov was killed steps away from the Kremlin, arguably the most secure place in Moscow. Coincidentally, security cameras facing the bridge where Nemtsov was murdered were down “for maintenance.”  One camera did manage to record the moment Nemtsov was shot, but at the exact moment a snowplow drives by, obscuring the couple and the gunman. Perhaps another coincidence, but it appears to be a coordinated effort to hide the identity of the shooter.

With Zaur Dadaev vehemently denying his involvement in the murder, theories abound as to who was really behind the killing of Boris Nemtsov. Given what is known, the most likely scenario is that Kadyrov had Nemtsov killed as a sort of present for Putin. Kadyrov has continually expressed his loyalty to Putin, even calling him a father-figure of sorts. Although no proof exists, it is said that Kadyrov was behind the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Nemtsov could be just another “gift,” a way for Kadyrov to show his devotion by killing a popular rival of Putin’s. But it could also be Kadyrov sending a message that he is more than just Putin’s lapdog in Chechnya. In recent months, Kadyrov has become more bold in his actions and words. After the December 2014 militant attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the removal of the families of those involved, and the destruction of their homes, earning a reprimand from Putin. In late April of this year, Russian security forces and local police from Stavropol conducted operation inside Chechen territory, during which an armed Chechen man was killed. Having not known of the operation, Kadyrov replied by saying “open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol appears on your turf without your knowledge.”  The statement appeared on Grozny TV and has since been taken down, but not before the statement reverberated back to Moscow. Many, and not just in Moscow, saw Kadyrov’s statement one of insubordination, openly testing the reach of his power.

The alleged involvement of another Chechen in the Nemtsov murder leads some to believe Kadyrov was behind it. Ruslan Geremeev was an officer with Sever Battalion, and is a member of a prominent Chechen family. It had been reported by Novaya Gazeta that Geremeev was not only wanted for questioning in connection with Nemtsov’s murder but that was actually the organizer. When authorities went to Chechnya to arrest him, they found his home guarded by Chechen agents. Geremeev has since disappeared, and is thought to be hiding in Dubai.

Why Zaur Dadaev? If Ruslan Geremeev was truly behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Dadaev may be a convenient patsy. He served with Geremeev in Sever Battalion, and was on leave around the same time as Nemtsov’s murder. That in itself is a flimsy argument as to Dadaev’s involvement. The truth – if it is ever revealed – will only come from those directly involved: the one who really pulled the trigger and the one who ordered it. In the meantime, it seems Zaur Dadaev is a pawn in a Kadyrov game.